Epe, an ancient community in Lagos State, is renowned for fishing, which over the years has been the source of livelihood for its inhabitants, especially women. However, for some time now, residents have been crying out that their source of livelihood is being threatened by water hyacinth, which they say is natural but controllable, Daily Trust reports.
There is hardly any time of day that visitors do not throng the popular fish market in Epe, and at the peak of trading, people from neighbouring states flock the market to buy fish.
However, when our correspondent visited recently, the early morning hustle and bustle was absent and the seashores were deserted.
It was around 09:00am and many of the fish traders were just arriving the market.
A day before, our correspondent arrived the community but the tour guide advised that it would be most appropriate to visit the market early in the morning in order to witness firsthand the increased tempo in buying and selling of all kinds of fish.
But the expected hustling and bustling was absent. There was a lull at the market and most of the traders wore long faces.
What could have been wrong? Why was the biggest fish market in West Africa not as busy as expected?
The traders had a ready answer – water hyacinth. They call it gbegborun in Yoruba.
This is a natural occurrence that continually threatens the survival of the hundreds of women who sell fish in the community.
Epe town, which is about 100 kilometres from Lagos Mainland, is in Epe Local Government Area of the state with a population of 181,409 people according to the 2006 census, but leaders of the community estimate the population to be about 400,000 at the moment.
It is predominantly a fishing community. An indigene of Epe is either a fisherman or a fish seller.
So the fish market has become an identity tag.
The market was said to have been named after the Oluwo family who sold the land occupied by the market to the government.
One thing that further strikes any visitor is the fact that only women sell fish while the men go fishing.
To some, it is a family business with the husband working as a fisherman while the wife sells the fish.
However, recently, water hyacinth has threatened the activities of the fishermen and traders at the Epe Fish Market.
Mrs Abeni Balogun, who has been selling fish at the market for the past 40 years, said the advent of water hyacinth had removed the excitement in the business, explaining that, “I am an indigene of Epe and this is the only business I have done in the past 40 years.
“I inherited this from my mother. But things have really changed.
“The joy is really no longer there, but we are just coming to the market so as not to sit at home.
“When you look at the sea, you can see water hyacinth everywhere.
“When you see that, there is nothing we can do. Our husbands can be stranded onshore for two, three days without catching any fish.
“We are the ones who sell the fish and that is why you see only women in the market.
“It is a female-dominated market, but it is not that our men are not involved.
“They go to the neighbouring communities farther down onshore to fish and the boatmen will bring it to the market to give us. But have you seen anybody around? They have been onshore for days waiting for the hyacinth to clear.”
Another trader, Mrs Yetunde Bello, said most of the traders had been incurring huge losses because they could not get fish supply to sell, restating that the fishermen had been onshore for days without catching enough fish.
Mrs Bello said, “The hyacinth is like poison to us. It destroys our canoes and the nets. This has worsened our economic woes.
“Things are hard now, especially since former Governor Akinwunmi Ambode (an indigene of Epe) left government.
“Our businesses are not thriving because of this problem of water hyacinth. Last year, some people came with some machines to clear the hyacinth but you can still see it everywhere.”
Mrs Ayoka Bello alias Iya Ojo who sells dry fish in the market corroborated the comments of the other fish traders, saying the water hyacinth had made fish very expensive.
She said, “Maybe during the rainy season we can have some respite, but as at today, the water hyacinth remains a major problem to us.”
Our correspondent gathered that a bowl of eight pieces of dry fish costs N5,000, which Mrs Ayoka said could be less when there was availability of fish.
The woman who revealed that she had been selling fish from childhood said, “The only time you can feel the aquatic blessing on this coastline is to come during the rainy season when you will see variety of fishes, especially the popular eja osan which is used as part of marriage rites in some South West states.
“But now, except the government comes to our aid, we are handicapped.
“You may think my fish is expensive, but I sell what I bought and I don’t want to run at a loss.
“But since we don’t have any other business apart from this which we inherited from our mothers, we are just trying to survive.”
She further said it was high time the market got a facelift, noting that while there were more fishes during the rainy season, navigating the market during the season could be challenging.
“You can’t even stay here because of the flood that takes over everywhere when it rains.
“Through our effort, we drop sandbags everywhere to make it easy for us to walk around when it rains.
“Former Governor Ambode promised to renovate the market for us and turn it into a modern facility, but since he didn’t get a second term, we have foreclosed any intervention in the nearest future,” she said.
The Iyalaje (leader) of the market, Chief (Mrs) Folashade Ojikutu, reiterated the concerns of the traders on the negative effect of water hyacinth on their business, while appealing to the Federal Government to come to their aid in controlling the weed.
Chief Ojikutu said, “I remember the Federal Government some time last year brought some machines to control the problem, but this is getting worse. We still call on government at all levels to do the needful.
“Our fishermen now spend four days onshore. At times they would come home with nothing.”
The Iyalaje further said, “This is a century-old market which has been threatened by this natural occurrence. Whatever the government can do to assist us would be highly appreciated. This is the only industry we have.”
Market due for facelift
According to Mrs Ojikutu, the fish market has been an eyesore in recent times requiring a serious facelift to make it more habitable for traders and attract more clientele.
She said, “Like I told you, we were using the old market close to the Naval Base.
“We appeal to the government to help us renovate this market; make it a modern market like we have in Badagry.”
The Chairman of Epe Local Government Area, Mr Adedoyin Adesanya, in a chat with Daily Trust, said the water hyacinth was a natural occurrence which was too expensive to control.
Mr Adesanya said, “It is not only affecting the fish traders alone; all the water transporters are affected. Water hyacinth is natural.
“I believe the wind will soon blow it away. We don’t have the wherewithal to clear it by ourselves.
“It requires machines which will cost us a lot. We have written to the authorities in charge – the Waterfront Ministry and the Ministry of Environment – and I believe they will do something.”
Daily Trust further reports that the water hyacinth, which floats on water, is said to have originated from the Amazon and has spread very quickly to many tropical and sub-tropical countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific.
On September 24, 1984, the plant reportedly arrived Nigeria and accumulated very fast on the waterways at the Lekki and Epe lagoons.
According to a marine scientist, Dr. Charles Onyema, there are four ways to control water hyacinth: use of machines, herbicides, organisms that feed on flowers and handpicking.
Dr Onyema said, “When government comes into the picture, they look at the mechanical or the physical ways by bringing dredgers and heavy duty vehicles and they would dredge, but that does not solve the problem because the source of it is from upstream.
“The ones in Epe lagoon are coming from Ogun State, even Ondo State and as far as Oyo State where it developed and flows down with the rainy season.
“They usually block everywhere at the end of the rainy season.
“What they must do is that we must study this thing and their seasons and take them out before they accumulate in our water bodies and begin to disturb us.
“Water hyacinth entered Nigeria for the first time in September, 1984, and since then, it is proliferating and traversing many states in Nigeria. Before then it did not exist in Nigeria.
“It doesn’t just disturb fishermen. It disturbs commercial boating because it affects their propellers.
“It affects people whose transport route is from Edo and Ondo states through the water channels, through the dirty Epe lagoon, Oko-Baba, Ebute-Metta.
“They pass through those channels those fishermen are passing through and it blocks them. It can hold them sometimes for a week and half.”
Onyema of the Department of Marine Science, University of Lagos, further stated that the way forward was to monitor the water hyacinth and that the Federal Government should come in through the acquisition of the materials needed to control it.