Imagine the size of 18 000 football fields, back to back. That is the magnitude of mangrove forests in Côte d’Ivoire. Nestled mainly along the south coastline, around 10 000 hectares of mangroves can be found between Assinie and Fresco in large lagoons and along the Cavally River that borders neighbouring Liberia.
But once upon a time Côte d’Ivoire used to have twice as many mangroves. According to FAO’s 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment, the West African country had 20 000 hectares back in 1990.
Besides climate change and urban development, the main reason for this drop is actually fish smoking. The long branches and underwater roots of mangroves are chopped off and used as firewood in makeshift ovens. The strong, red mangrove wood gives fish a golden look and pungent smoky taste.
Smoked fish products are a big deal in Côte d’Ivoire, accounting for 65% – or 1 million kilos – of the all fish traded. Fish smoking is mainly carried out by women in coastal fishing communities and is a job generator, providing 240 000 indirect jobs for women.
But such demand and dependency on fish smoking – not to mention the potential health risks from the firewood fumes – are adding to mangrove forest degradation and loss. Alternative ways to smoke fish and more mangrove conservation and awareness are needed among local fishing communities, so they can continue to provide for both people and planet.
For fish, mangroves are habitats to spawn, grow and shelter thanks to cooler waters, a higher oxygen content and sprawling roots that act as a sanctuary from larger prey.
For the environment, mangrove forests are a crossroads for ocean, continental and instream ecosystems. They help to mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide while acting as a bulwark for coastal shorelines.
For coastal communities, this group of trees and shrubs are key fishing grounds that provide food, protein and livelihoods.
Over the next few years, the FAO and the Abidjan Convention – a UN Environment body – will carry out restoration on around 350 hectares of accessible mangroves sites – or approximately 654 football fields’ worth – in Fresco and Sassandra.
Conservation work will be particularly beneficial in Sassandra, where mangroves are home to key commercial fish, such as sardine and herring. These fisheries provide livelihoods for almost 2 000 small-scale fishers, who represent the vast majority – 70% – of the Ivorian fishing industry.
The work will go hand-in-hand with broader efforts to better manage coastal fisheries. Improve working conditions, enhancing the quality of fish products as well as empowering women in the seafood value chain and raising awareness on mangrove conservation are all part of the bigger umbrella of the Coastal Fisheries Initiative (CFI), funded by the Global Environment Facility (the GEF).
Côte d’Ivoire is not be the only country to benefit. The CFI also encompasses Cabo Verde, Ecuador, Indonesia, Peru and Senegal to make coastal fisheries more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.
The teams and agencies involved recently gathered in Abidjan to plan the work for next year and exchange knowledge on coastal fisheries management and mangrove conservation.
Conservation work happens on the ground, or on land and water in this case for mangroves. To grasp a sense of the upcoming work in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal and following an annual meeting with partners, a field trip was organized for the CFI team to travel to a mangrove site 2 hours’ drive from Abidjan, in Adiaké.
There, spanning an area of around 550 hectares is an archipelago of six islands – the Ehotile Islands, located in the South-Como region, on the Aby lagoon, is where the UN Environment’s Abidjan Convention is currently carrying out conservation work, with community outreach for greater awareness on mangroves.
Dr Yacoub Issola of the Abidjan Convention explained that the lush vegetation consists mainly of mangroves (40%) on the edge of the islands and forests in the center. Two species of mangroves can be found on the islands: Laguncularia racemose (white mangrove) and Rhizophora mangle (red mangrove), with the red wood used more for fish smoking.
Like the Îles Ehotilé, most of the country’s mangroves are found in National Parks and are therefore under some kind of protection. Park rangers patrol the islands and mangroves, but authorities lack the means and resources to fully monitor no one is cutting trees, hunting or fishing.
As a ranger from Îles Ehotilé explained his role in monitoring activity around the park, stories were told of those who defend mangroves on the front line.
“I don’t think twice about protecting them”, Peruvian fisherwoman Hilda León had told the team. For decades Ms León has fished for black shells in the muddy, deep waters of the mangroves in the heart of the Tumbes region, northern Peru. Selling black shells has given her a livelihood to provide for her 11 children but also a connection to care for nature and mangroves.
Illegal wood cutters had threatened her many times for being so protective of the mangrove forests where she works, but she added, “If I die protecting them, then so be it, at the foot of a mangrove”.