How Surinamese fisheries are being impacted by climate change — and what's being done about it

Fishing for tilapia in Bigi Pan, Suriname. Photo by -JvL- on Flickr, (CC BY 2.0).

By Priscilla Misiekaba-Kia

This story, which first appeared on Cari-Bois Environmental News Network, was published with the support of Climate Tracker and The Cropper Foundation’s Caribbean Citizen Journalism Fellowship. A version of the article is republished below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

As warmer temperatures affect the abundance, movement patterns, and mortality rates of wild fish stocks, as well as which species can be farmed in specific places, fish and their habitats are being impacted by climate change. People who depend on fisheries and aquaculture will also be impacted, both socially and economically, by these climate effects. In Suriname, issues like inadequate reporting, overfishing, and illegality pose challenges to the country’s fishing industry, but when it comes to climate change, the impact is difficult to determine.

Zojindra Arjune, deputy director of Fisheries Management, says there has been a decline in the number of fish catches across the board. According to the Fisheries Management Plan (VMP) 2021-2025, fish landings increased sharply from 8,871 to 39,993 tons between 2008 and 2017, but fell sharply in 2018 and 2019, reaching approximately 24,000 tons in 2019.

This decrease could be a result of a lack of data on recorded landings of the artisanal fleet. It could also be explained by looking into underreporting of fish landings outside of Suriname, but it is difficult for the Fisheries sub-directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries (LVV) to determine whether the effect is also due to climate change. Arjune says that no research has been done on this in Suriname.

“Research is expensive and you need to have the facilities to do research. The data on the composition of fish species off the coast date from the 1980s,” he said, adding that “no survey has been done since then.”

On October 4, 2022, during a webinar about fish and fishing licenses hosted by the networking organization KennisKring, Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Parmanand Sewdien said that climate change was the cause of the decrease in catches in the Seabob shrimp fishery.

Although catches have been fairly stable in the past 15 to 20 years, they have decreased noticeably in the past two, all while the fishing efforts decreased, so in Arjune's view, there is no question of overfishing. “Catches have fallen remarkably low,” he says. “That is why the explanation is sought in the direction of climate change.”

Udo Karg, chairman of the Suriname Seafood Association (SSA), says that the organisation has been pushing for a biomass study for some time. This research will take up to two-and-a-half years and will cost between USD 2 and 3 million. SSA members contribute approximately USD 1 million in fishing license fees to the state each year, and they are asking that these resources be used for research into the consequences of rising sea temperatures for fisheries.

According to Karg, a large part of the declining fish catches is now attributed to illegal fishing activities from Guyana. There is further controversy around the issue as the Surinamese government has talked about the possible implementation of a fisheries agreement with Guyana, an arrangement Karg does not support.

The SSA’s biggest concern is that everything will eventually end. Karg says that Suriname is doing everything it can to make fisheries a more dependable resource. Most Surinamese fishermen adhere to the many rules that are in place, he says, but some rules are still not taken seriously. “Since we react feebly on these violations, there is a huge concern about continuity,” he explains.

Akash Sital is a second-generation fisherman who took over the business from his parents. He works at the Surinamese Coastal Fisheries (SK), where catches which include bang bang (Cynoscion acoupa), kandratiki (Cynoscion virenscens), koepila (Arius proops), and tarpon are made with open boats. He says he deals with the effects of climate change daily.

“Due to the sea level rise, we’ve seen damage to the breeding grounds of the fish. The fish, therefore, move away in search of other breeding grounds,” Sital explains. Making a comparison, he stated that in the 1980s, vessels were 12 metres long and had small engines. Now, with more turbulent waters to contend with, larger vessels have to be purchased to ensure workers’ safety.

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Sital says, a vessel would spend about six to eight days at sea catching 100-200 bang bangs and some kandra, koepila, and tarpon as bycatch. Now, they stay at sea for 15-21 days, sometimes with disappointing results: “We are talking about a cost of SRD 60,000 to SRD 70,000 (USD 1,876 to 2,188) that you cannot cover.”

In the October 2022 edition of KennisKring, Minister Sewdien indicated that there were signs of overfishing within the SK fishery. Sital is also aware of this. “When my father started [SK] we had quite a fleet of vessels, but now the fleet has been reduced by more than half. We had to identify other sources of income. Living off fishing is hard. Back then it was possible. Now it’s more of a hobby. There is no option for expansion [of fisheries].”

Sital would like the government to support the sector: “We don’t get any import duties. We pay the hard retail price 99.9 percent of entrepreneurs in the fishing industry are in debt.”

The sea fishing sector is of great socio-economic importance to Suriname, but in Arjune's view, the Fisheries Management Plan is a precautionary measure after a decrease in catches has been noticed. Predicting that the national household will come under pressure because of reduced income, he says an even more significant issue is if people are forced to leave the sector because they no longer earn enough: “What are they going to do? Where are they going to find employment?”

The ministry is already looking at alternatives, and trying to get fishermen to switch to aquaculture through training and policy, though Arjune believes it will be a challenge to get people who are used to going out to sea, to now watch fish grow: “A big problem with aquaculture is the feeding component. Feed is expensive. In certain areas, cultivation is carried out on a very large scale, which will reduce the cost price. We are small and unable to achieve these economies of scale.”

Aquaculture is definitely an option for the SSA, though. Some of its members are already engaged in aquaculture, but to practice it on a large scale for export is an expensive investment. Aquaculture for farmed shrimp, for example, requires an investment of between USD 20 and 30 million, so both education and accessibility to capital play key roles in a successful transition. “You cannot go to any bank in Suriname to borrow those large sums of money,” says Karg. “So you can’t do aquaculture on a commercial level either.”

Sital believes that aquaculture can be an option for Surinamese fishers because it offers them security: “When a vessel goes to sea you don’t know what it will come with. With aquaculture, you know what you can do to improve your quality. The question is, to what extent the government is prepared to invest in this and to train the entrepreneurs and offer them the opportunity to do so.”

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