TOMBWA, Angola - His ancestors were Portuguese colonialists who settled on this otherworldly stretch of coast, wedged between a vast desert and the southern Atlantic. They came looking for the one thing this barren region had in abundance: fish.

By the time Mario Carceija Santos was getting into the fishing business half a century later, in the 1990s, Angola had won independence and the town of Tombwa was thriving. There were 20 fish factories strung along the bay, a constellation of churches and schools, a cinema hall built in art deco, and, in the central plaza, massive drying racks for the tons upon tons of fish hauled out of the sea.

Since then, Tombwa's fortunes have plummeted; Santos's factory is one of just two remaining. The cinema hall is shuttered. Kids run around town barefoot instead of going to school. The central plaza is overgrown by weeds, its statue of a proud fisherman covered in bird droppings.

village

Almost all of Tombwa's residents rely on fishing for their livelihoods, but the decline of some fish species has put the town's future in question. 

"Six or seven species have disappeared almost entirely from here, sardines and anchovies included - the ones these factories were made for processing," Santos said in his office, after inspecting the day's catch.

"We'll just have to close shop at some point."

The gradual disappearance of fish is a death knell for Tombwa, a town of 50,000 that has little else to offer residents. The approaching bust is the result of three powerful forces: Fish are suffocating in oxygen-depleted waters, huge foreign trawlers are grabbing what's left, and the water is heating up far more rapidly here than almost anywhere else on the planet.

Sea temperatures off the Angolan coast have warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) - and possibly more - in the past century, according to a Washington Post analysis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

person holding fish

The dusky kob, seen here on a remote beach north of Tombwa, is a prized catch among recreational anglers in southern Angola. 

In recent years, multiple studies have identified the waters along Tombwa's coast in particular as a fast-warming hot spot: In one independent analysis of satellite-based NOAA data, temperatures have risen nearly 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1982. That is more than three times the global average rate of ocean warming.

Ocean warming in key hot spots around the globe - from Canada to Japan to Uruguay, where temperatures have risen 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or more - is disrupting an array of fisheries, including lobsters, salmon and clams, The Post's reporting has found.

The impact is especially acute in Angola, among the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, even though the entire country's carbon dioxide emissions amount to about 0.1% of the world's output each year.

The warming ocean temperatures compound the effects of two other ecological catastrophes playing out in this southern African country of 30 million: Illegal fishing depletes the ocean of tens of thousands of tons of fish each year, and increasingly oxygen-poor seawater makes coastal areas inhospitable to a diversity of marine life.

Fisheries data from the southern coast of Angola, a country wracked by civil war until the mid-2000s, is sparse. But a number of species integral to the area are being hard hit by the disruptive consequences from this triple threat:

- A species of fish critical to subsistence fishermen in Tombwa, the blacktail seabream, is losing its ability to reproduce here as waters warm: Its reproductive output is estimated to have declined by 20% per decade over the past 30 years. Instead, the fish are moving south, to cooler waters, according to a study by Warren Potts, a marine biologist at Rhodes University in South Africa.

- The dusky kob, a massive fish that can grow over six feet long and is popular with anglers in southern Angola, is also shifting southward, sparking a bizarre evolutionary event: Two kob species that had been separated for some 2 million years have reconnected and are interbreeding, Potts has found. That development implies that warming levels here may have breached a new threshold.

- Beyond the southern coastline, a species key to the Angolan diet has been disappearing from the country's waters: Cunene horse mackerel levels in the region dropped from an estimated 430,000 tons in 1996 to 137,000 tons in 2013, a "historic low and critical level," according to a technical report written to help Angola manage the species.

people fishing

Most of the fishing in Tombwa is unregulated, especially among artisanal fishers. But illegal trawling by huge foreign vessels is the main driver alongside climate change in depleting fish populations. 

Ultimately, unchecked warming could also cause Angola to lose 20% of its fisheries, according to a recent study by Rashid Sumaila, an oceans expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada. The projection uses ecological and economic modeling to determine what could happen to fisheries if countries fail to cut emissions.

Oceans are complex ecosystems, and marine life is highly sensitive to even the slightest shifts in temperature and oxygen levels. Potts, who is alone in studying the warming near Tombwa firsthand, says the chain reaction the changes will wreak here is hard to predict - but almost inevitably dire.

"Imagine that one species of fish is able to adapt to the warming, but it so happens they've evolved to only eat another species that wasn't able to adapt. Then what?" said Potts, 45, an avid fisherman who, like many South Africans, was initially drawn to southern Angola for its legendary angling.

Potts and his team of postgraduate researchers travel to southern Angola at least once a year. They don scuba gear and dive to collect sensors that take the temperature of the water.

In February 2016, those sensors registered a strong ocean heat wave. Temperatures spiked above 28 degrees Celsius (82.4 Fahrenheit) multiple times during the month - well above averages that have hovered around 21 degrees Celsius (69.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in recent years. The entire month was more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than any other February that Potts's team has recorded.

Angola lacks the capacity, especially in vulnerable fishing towns like Tombwa, to adjust or adapt to the drastic changes.

Tombwa's inhabitants are mostly migrants from even poorer regions of a country that suffers from other climatic calamities, such as cycles of drought and flood. Even as factory jobs dwindle, along with the tonnages hauled and the sizes of the fish themselves, people continue to settle here.

waiting in line

Jobs in commercial fishing are increasingly hard to come by as most of the region's fish processing plants have closed. 

Most of Tombwa's fishermen now go out on their own, in homemade crafts of plastic foam and chopped-up pieces of buoy, hoping to catch the fish that remain.

"Together with the massive exploitation going on, Tombwa isn't likely to exist in 20 or 30 years," said Potts.

That prediction inches closer to reality each day for Santos, the factory owner. His boats used to leave early in the morning and his fisherman would be back on shore by lunch.

"Now we travel much farther than we used to - nine, 12, 16 hours on our boats," he said. "We are no match for the changes."

- - -

On a long, deserted stretch of beach, two women watched expectantly as Joao Bautista paddled his tiny craft back into Tombwa from the open sea. He'd spent the whole morning bobbing out there alone on his simple flotation device, using plastic plates as oars, his legs dangling in the water.

They were hoping he'd caught enough fish for them to buy and then sell for a small markup at the market, where fish is salted and shipped to distant towns. That is mostly what drives Tombwa's economy nowadays.

But the look on his face as he landed on shore that morning in May was of exhaustion and disappointment. His haul after six hours at sea was measly: nine small squid. The women were unimpressed, but they bought the entire catch for 450 kwanza (roughly $1), enough for the fisherman to buy two meals.

joao bautista handful of squid

Despite spending hours at sea, Joao Bautista returns with a small haul of squid. 

Bautista, 26, has been fishing for a living since he was 10, in the same waters that older folks say used to produce glistening catches with just the dip of a net.

"I am not making a living anymore, just surviving," he said.

What Bautista is seeing plays out along the southern Angolan coastline.

Some of the drop in numbers of marine creatures can be attributed to overfishing. But what's happening off the coast of Tombwa is a striking example of how temperature-driven changes in wind and current patterns can have extreme consequences in small patches of the globe.

As the Earth has heated up, the warm air in the tropics around the equator has been expanding outward. In the South Atlantic, the warmer air pushes a giant high-pressure zone southward. That zone comes with high winds that drive currents such as the Benguela, which carries cold southern waters north along the southwest African coast.

This wind circulation once consistently drove the top layer of the ocean away from the southern Angolan coast, forcing cooler water from the depths to rise - a process called upwelling. It's critical to fisheries because the cooler, deeper waters tend to be rich in nutrients that fish need to survive.

But the shift in the high-pressure zone has meant slowing winds and less upwelling. As the water there stagnates, warmer currents seep in and take the Benguela's place.

people fishing

The environment is in flux in other parts of Angola, too, causing cycles of droughts and floods in the country's interior. Despite the foreboding signs in Tombwa, people from those regions still see an opportunity to make a living or at least catch some food here.

That means much less cold water has been reaching the surface. Between 2009 and 2014, the volume of cool water that rose to the ocean surface in the northern Benguela current region shrank by more than half compared to average figures from the prior 30 years, according to recent research.

These shifts have driven the dramatic rise in ocean temperatures here, said Edward Vizy, a climate scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. He and his colleague Kerry Cook conducted a NASA-funded study of the region that used NOAA satellite data to document the above-average warming here.

"We talk about global warming, but what people feel are the regional and short-term extremes," said Michael McPhaden, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

The major heat wave that Potts's team recorded in February 2016 put this process on full display. Weaker winds and a probable resulting decline in upwelling were key factors in the spiking water temperatures, according to a recent study led by Joke Lübbecke, an ocean researcher at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.

Sudden, drastic warming can have disastrous effects on fish.

"Water conducts temperature a lot better than air, so if the water temperature is 28.5 degrees [Celsius], the [fish's] body will most likely follow suit," said Alexander Winkler, a postdoctoral researcher working with Potts.

In Tombwa, the people most keenly aware of the rise in local sea temperatures are those who own boats equipped with thermometers, like Paulo Peleira, a 42-year-old captain of the midsize Principe das Ondas, or Prince of the Waves.

Even though his livelihood depends on hauling fish out of the sea by the ton - which are then vacuumed out of his boat into a pipe at one of the remaining processing plants - he said he feels sorry for the fish.

"Our fish can deal with water 18 to 22 degrees [Celsius], but even just this week it was like 26 for days. Imagine what it must be like for them," he said, standing on the dock with his crew of eight.

olga lucas fishing

Awaiting the fishermen's return are women like Olga Lucas, who cleans and salts the fish to sell later. 

"You know, fishermen are typically hopeful people, going out every day not knowing what we'll find. That's why, at first, we thought the warming was just a phase. Well, it's not. Seems to me we'll spend the rest of our lives zigging and zagging in this ocean just to find the fish."

Multiple studies, including by Vizy and Potts, have documented the rapid warming trend along this coast over the past three decades. But in the scientific community, a dearth of longer-term data has led to some disagreement over the degree and causes of the warming, especially before satellite data became available in 1982.

Mathieu Rouault, an ocean scientist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, doesn't doubt the recent warming trend near Tombwa. But he emphasizes that natural ocean cycles, which deliver occasional pulses of warm tropical water to the area called Benguela Niños, are also crucial to understanding what's happening.

For instance, temperatures here were warmer in the 1960s than during the cool 1980s, when the current sharp warming trend began. This suggests that temperatures were driven by natural variability, rather than showing a clear upward trend. But over a longer period, since 1880, NOAA data shows large warming, above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) along the Angolan coast. Scientists are not certain whether to trust the results, however, because along this coastline very few temperature measurements were taken by ships in the late 19th century.

Another change that goes hand in hand with warming: declining ocean oxygen levels.

Waters along the coast of Angola are losing dissolved oxygen at the rate of about 2% per decade, which is among the fastest losses seen across the global ocean, according to Lothar Stramma of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research.

Deoxygenation can have dire consequences for fisheries. In oxygen-thin water, lower parts of the food web, such as zooplankton and small fish like sardines and anchovies, suffer the most. The impacts can ripple through the entire ecosystem.

Potts says the declining levels of oxygen in waters around Tombwa mean the fish found there are typically smaller, because younger fish need less oxygen. At the same time, more adults are now found farther south, in Namibian waters.

The sea temperature changes have come so quickly that even younger local fishermen remember the days when water over 21.1 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit) was worrisome. Nowadays, it can push to 26.7 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit).

"With what we see around here, with the currents fighting for position and the warmer current winning out, we'd expect to see a reduction in everything fishwise: sizes, quantities, even a r off his makeshift paddle board, to Potts to Peleira to Santos - feel like they are watching their boomtown go bust.

"It is just a race now to get everything out before it all goes away," Bautista said.

- - -

vital sousa marcao

For those who've spent their whole lives in Tombwa, like Vital Sousa Marção, the advent of trawling compounds the pain of an already changing ocean. 

In the race to fish southern Angola's warming seas, everyone here agrees: The winners are huge commercial fishing trawlers and the losers are those who have made Tombwa their home.

To 60-year-old Vital Sousa Marção, it is infuriating.

"It is done by people who do not sleep here, eat here, know here," he said, on the brink of tears. He runs the town's boatyard and once was a union leader when there were more than 5,000 fishermen here - about five times as many as there are now. "The trawlers, they are committing a terrible sin."

Angola's waters are largely unregulated, whether for trawlers or what the government calls "artisanal" fishers, like Joao Bautista.

The available evidence indicates that most illegal fishing off Angola's coast is carried out by private, independent-owned vessels that originate in China and South Korea.

The Angolan government has insufficient patrol boats to guard its waters against trawlers that use giant nets to catch huge quantities of fish without permission. Compounding the problem is Angola's indebtedness to China. Fisheries make up about 4% of Angola's gross domestic product, but the country's economy is dominated by a massive oil industry. Most of that oil is bought by China, which in turn owns about 70% of Angola's debt, or around $23 billion.

Marção and Santos say that indebtedness explains what they see as the Angolan government's apathy in cracking down on the trawlers.

"I don't think there's anything we can do to stop climate change," said Santos, who says trawling is speeding his business's decline. "But the least the government could do is stop the overfishing."

Angola's Ministry of Fisheries did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

At a much smaller scale, the influx of artisanal fishers is also contributing to overfishing, though of species found at shallower depths closer to shore, a trend the fishermen are acutely aware of as they see it every day in diminishing catches.

pic of sea

The fishing in Tombwa is now less of a commercial venture and more of a free-for-all. Fishermen build their own boats out of discarded material. 

Welwitschia Mirabilis Adolf is one of the thousands who have recently moved to Tombwa. His parents named him after one of the few plants that can survive the Angolan desert, a wilted-looking shrub that even when healthy looks as if it has melted into a puddle of agave-like leaves.

In his native region of Huambo, he says the sun has been more scorching and the rain less frequent. His family's livelihood in Huambo - herding cattle - has become almost impossible. Neither the cattle nor the people have sufficient food.

"There's hunger where I came from," he said. He is now part of a five-man squad that fishes from a small wooden rowboat. "At least here you can catch a few fish and eat."

There is no monitoring of the artisanal fishermen - no landing sites where quotas might be enforced or policing body that could punish infractions like not throwing back pregnant or juvenile fish. Those simple practices can help protect vulnerable fisheries.

"Artisanal fishing is simply anarchy," said Carmen Van Dúnem Santos, an Angolan professor who collaborated with Potts and who leads a government-run ocean sciences academy an hour north of Tombwa. "But the trawlers, they are the kings. They can do whatever they want, and many of them have no respect for the future."

She is part of the Angolan government's delegation to the Benguela Current Commission, which includes officials from Namibia and South Africa, and aims to promote sustainable fishing. It was established more than a decade ago, but she says Angola hasn't adopted any kind of coastal management policy.

"There are lots of proposals, but no action," she said. "I am afraid we are running out of time."

- - -

METHODOLOGY

For the temperature map and short-term analysis, Edward Vizy of the University of Texas at Austin aggregated NOAA's daily Optimum Interpolated Sea Surface Temperature into annual values and provided them to The Washington Post. The aggregation of those figures may result in some uncertainty, but Vizy's research shows that multiple data sets find a warming hot spot in the same area. Other studies have also identified the area as warming more than the global average.

To analyze longer-term changes along Angola's coastline, The Post used NOAA's Extended Reconstructed Sea Surface Temperature data set.

Previous stories in this series have used the Berkeley Earth data set to show warming trends dating to a preindustrial period between 1880 and 1899. This report relies on shorter-term, modern measurements, mirroring scientific studies of the region. Oceanic measurements were sparse along the Angola coastline in the late 19th century, rendering long-term trends highly uncertain before 1910.

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