Nigerian rescue workers pulled more than three dozen bodies from the water on Thursday after an overcrowded river boat sank leaving more than 150 people missing and feared drowned.

Survivors and officials said only 20 people were rescued on Wednesday when the wooden boat ferrying passengers to a market broke apart and sank travelling between central Niger state and Wara in northwest Kebbi state.

"Nine more bodies have been recovered. So far 45 bodies have been found. The search continues for more bodies," Abubakar Shehu, a local official supervising the rescue operation, told AFP.

People were pulling bodies out of the water in Ngaski, Nigeria, after the boat disaster
People were pulling bodies out of the water in Ngaski, Nigeria, after the boat disaster AFP / -

River boat tragedies are common on Nigerian waterways mostly due to overcrowding, weather and lack of maintenance, but Wednesday's toll would be one of the deadliest in recent years.

President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday called the mishap "devastating" after the country's inland waterways authority said only 20 people had been rescued and another 156 were still missing.

"When the boat broke into two, I wondered if people were sinking into the water," survivor Usman Umar told AFP, standing by the river bank in Ngaski area in Kebbi.

"The boat capacity was something up to 150 people, us survivors can't be even 20."

Map locating Wara in Nigeria
Map locating Wara in Nigeria AFP / STAFF

Ali Ibrahim Garba, wearing an orange life jacket standing near wooden boats on the river bank, said they were still searching for missing people after saving as many as they could.

"Right now we are in search of three people, one male and two females," he said.

NIWA agency local manager Yusuf Birma told reporters on Wednesday the boat was overcrowded with around 180 people and went down an hour into its journey.

Local district administrator Abdullahi Buhari Wara said the boat was also loaded with bags of sand from a gold mine.

NIWA has banned night-time sailing on the rivers to stop accidents and says overloading ships is a criminal offense, but skippers and crews often ignore the regulations.

Early in May, 30 people drowned when an overloaded boat capsized in Niger state.

The boat carrying 100 local traders also split into two after hitting a trunk during a storm as they were returning from a local market.

The Niger, West Africa's main river travelling through Guinea to Nigeria's Niger Delta, is a key local trade route for some of the countries.