6. A Visionary plan for the Banc d'Arguin

Posted: 13 October 2000

Author: Pierre Campredon and Meg Gawler

Author Info: Pierre Campredon is the Executive Secretary of the International Foundation for the Banc d'Arguin. Meg Gawler is the founding Director of Artemis Services for Nature Conservation and Human Development based in France.

Africa's largest and most spectacular marine park, in Mauritania, is under enormous pressure from within and without. Pierre Campredon and Meg Gawler report on the master plan to secure the future of this beautiful World Heritage site.

Stretching for 12,000 square kilometres, half sea and half desert, the Banc d'Arguin is the largest marine park in Africa, harbouring a spectacular web of biodiversity. Its calm waters include the Mediterranean monk seal (in a satellite reserve), numerous cetaceans including the rare Guinean dolphin, marine turtles, the largest population of nesting seabirds in West Africa, as well as the world's largest concentration of migratory waders - two million every winter.

The vast shallow expanses of seagrasses, together with the inflow of nutrient-rich waters from upwelling currents offshore, are what makes the Banc d'Arguin so highly productive. It constitutes Mauritania's most important reproduction and nursery area for fisheries - the country's major economic resource.

As catches decline along the African coast, fishers are increasingly attracted to this legally protected area, where most resources are still abundant. How is this park, with few means at its disposal, to ensure the protection of such a huge and important marine area?

Fish catches© Meg Gawler/WWF An early strategy, dating from the creation of the park in 1976, was to maintain - within the limits of the park - the small communities of resident fishers, the Imraguen, and to give them exclusive fishing rights to the area, using traditional non-motorised methods. By protecting their own resources, the Imraguen have become the "defenders" of the park, providing a level of surveillance from their own sailboats that the park administration would be unable to carry out alone. Here, having people within the park is a solution, rather than a problem.

However, the rapid evolution and globalisation of the world's fisheries is posing ever-increasing threats. For example, the Imraguen, who are among the poorest people in Mauritania, are now solicited by middlemen for the shark-fin market in Asia, where prices exceed US$100 per kilogramme. In recent years an important shark and ray fishery has developed within the park, and some species, such as the saw-fish, have already disappeared, victim of demand from the other side of the planet.

Furthermore, as the Imraguen, who have always depended on subsistence fishing, have been pushed into a market economy, the very foundations of their society have been profoundly shaken. Worse, since sharks and rays cannot be fished intensively because of their long reproductive cycles, this new market economy is unsustainable and likely to crash.

In order to address problems such as these the Banc d'Arguin National Park, with the technical and financial support of its partners, has developed a ten-year Master Plan, negotiated with all major stakeholders, and approved by the Mauritanian government. The master plan is based on five major objectives:

  • establishing efficient management systems
  • protecting the park and its resources
  • scientifically demonstrating the biological and economic importance of the park
  • improving the Imraguen's living conditions together with the park's economic and aesthetic values
  • strengthening partnerships.
In order to implement the plan, new park regulations have been defined in the context of modern realities. During a three-day workshop under a big Moorish tent in one of the villages in the park, draft legislation was developed directly with the representatives of the Imraguen communities. One important accomplishment of this participatory planning was reaching agreement to limit the total number of Imraguen boats in the interest of ensuring a sustainable level of fishing effort.

A major step forward was taken in January 2000, when the new law was passed, strengthening the protection of the park. This law specifies the creation of an advisory structure including representatives of the local communities, and it excludes all fishing within the park, except traditional, non-motorised fishing by the resident Imraguen communities.

This new law reflects the lessons learned from 25 years of experience in managing this extraordinary ecosystem. The new measures go beyond the previous regulations, and represent a national commitment to growing concerns about the unsustainable use of this highly productive coastal area. The new law specifically prohibits fishing methods such as trawling, "Filets Tournants", and drift nets. In addition, it affords complete protection to the park's many islands, and prohibits the hunting of all wild mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

However, not all problems have been solved. Among the most thorny are the pirate fishers: small-scale fishers from Mauritania and Senegal, and industrial vessels, often from Europe. In response to these threats, the park and its partners have raised funds for three rapid patrol boats, and surveillance patrols are carried out by joint teams of Imraguen fishers and park authorities.

In spite of the concerted efforts of the Imraguen, the park, and its partner organisations, the future gives great cause for concern. Never have the internal and external pressures on the park been so great. As marine resources outside are increasingly depleted, it becomes more and more difficult to protect the vast areas and rich resources of the Banc d'Arguin.

What is needed is not only adequate funding, but also more enlightened fisheries policies in Europe and Asia, and an end to irresponsible and destructive practices by distant water fishing fleets - in short, greater international solidarity - to help Mauritania safeguard this complex and beautiful World Heritage site.