A crisis in the water is decimating this once-booming fishing town

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.

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 risen 1.5 degrees Celsius — and possibly more — in the past century, according to a Washington Post analysis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

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 since 1982. That is more than three times the global average rate of ocean warming.

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