Senegalese fishers weep over loss of noble fish

Posted: 29 May 2003

Author: Olivier van Bogaert

Over the past few decades, the formerly abundant fishing resources of Senegal have plummeted. The presence of foreign, and in particular EU, fishing fleets in Senegalese waters is exacerbating a problem caused in part by the unregulated development of local, traditional fisheries. Olivier van Bogaert reports.

Maïmouna is sitting in front of a dozen of kobos - or Bonga shad (Ethmalosa fimbriata), a small coastal pelagic fish - that are drying under the sun and attracting clouds of flies. These are the fish she could not sell today.maimounaMaïmouna, selling kobos in the Mar Lodj market, Senegal.© WWF-Canon/Olivier van BogaertShe'll wait a little longer - you never know, someone in the village might still want a couple of them. If not, she'll salt or smoke the remaining kobos for later sale. If she had been able to sell all her fish, like the other vendors who were lucky enough to go home early today, she would have earned 2,500 CFA (about 4 Euros).

Every morning in Mar lodj, in Senegal's Saloum delta, some 200 kilometres south of Dakar, these vendors, almost exclusively women, fetch the fish landed by the fishermen and then display it on a mat in the middle of this Senegalese hamlet, where tom-toms are still the only way to communicate with neighbouring villages.

But if they don't sell all their fish, this does not mean that there is an overabundance. On the contrary, fish has become rarer. And less noble.

"Before, we used to get barracudas and red carp, and fishers did not catch kobos," says a villager. "Now we have to eat these kobos, because most of the time there is nothing else."

Falling fish stocks

Dr Papa Samba Diouf, Head of WWF's Marine Programme in West Africa, agrees. "A few decades ago, the Saloum delta abounded in fish. And a recent report, which compared 100 different estuaries taken at random in the world, concluded that only six of them had more species than the Saloum delta.

"But Russian fleets massively exploited these stocks from the 1960s to the early 1980s, which means that today the local fishermen, as well as the foreign vessels that fish here, are drawing on already exhausted resources." To add to an already serious situation, the Saloum fishermen are considered some of the best in the country.

"It's a shame, the Saloum delta is biologically very rich, but because of overfishing and increasing salinity, the fish have gone," deplores Papa Samba Diouf.

The delta is part of the West African Marine Ecoregion, 3,500km of coast that spans six countries: Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, and Guinea. These coasts vary from rocky cliffs, broad sand beaches, and extensive sea grass prairies in the north to dense mangrove forests and well developed estuaries in the south.

© WWF InternationalBut it is the powerful coastal upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich waters from deep in the ocean to the surface that make the ecoregion so important. These nutrients provide the foundation for a tremendously productive food chain that supports incredible biodiversity. Over 1,000 species of fish live here, along with dolphins, whales, endangered marine turtles, the world's largest-remaining colony of monk seals, and one of the most important coral reefs in the world.

In addition, over 6 million migrating birds feed in the rich coastal waters before beginning their homeward trek to Europe in the northern hemisphere spring.

Foreign fleets

Fisheries along this coast generate some US$400 million annually, making them the single most important source of foreign exchange and a key source of revenue for economic and social development. In Senegal alone, the jobs of over 600,000 men and women depend directly on fishing and fisheries related industries. In addition to domestic industrial and artisanal fishing fleets, many foreign powers - in particular the EU, Japan, and China - have negotiated important fisheries agreements that allow their boats to fish in the waters of these countries.fishing scene in SenegalArtisanal pirogue with local fishermen passing a Spanish trawler in their fishing grounds, Senegal.© WWF-Canon/Jo Benn On the beach of Joal, which neighbours Mar lodj, lack of fish and other misfortunes are on everyone's lips. Here, the villagers blame European industrial fishing boats.

"Every day after fishing, I have to repair my broken nets," complains Ousseynou Niang, captain of a pirogue, the canoe-like boat used by most artisanal fishermen here. "Sometimes they are damaged by stones or crabs, but most of the time they are cut by big vessels."

Thiogo Diene Seck is the wife of a fisherman. She participates actively in her husband's activities, selling fish to local processing centres in order to buy fishing gear for the pirogue her family depends on. She is both terrified by and angry about the European vessels, which too often trespass at night into the exclusive fishing zone (6 miles off the coast) of the artisanal (traditional or non-industrial) fishermen. "Not only do they steal our resources, but they might kill our men," she says, referring to the occasional but dramatic collisions between small pirogues and big trawlers.

Freezing fish

Further along the coast in M'Bour, one of the country's fishing hot spots, it's very clear that women take an active role in Senegalese artisanal fishing communities. Aminata Sarr, President of the Senegalese federation of women working in fish processing, is roaming the local artisanal processing centre, where fish are drying or being smoked.

These centres, which generally employ men but are run by women, are increasing seen as a solution to the lack of proper freezing infrastructures in Senegal. Although there are some factories that freeze fish for export to western Europe, most exported fish is frozen on board the foreign fishing fleets.

The artisanal processing centres provide a way to sell all the fish landed by artisanal fishers that cannot be frozen immediately, both in Senegal and in neighbouring countries. "I've worked in this sector all my life," says Aminata Sarr. "Artisanal fishermen are our partners, but because of pirate vessels, both Senegalese and Europeans, we have less and less resources and work."

However, the problem of overfishing in Senegalese waters cannot be blamed on industrial trawlers only. With about 80 per cent of all landed fish, artisanal fishing is taking the lion's share of local fish stocks. If you add the recurrent drought that impoverishes inland areas, driving more and more people to the coast, and the lack of regulations that allows anyone to become a fisherman without having to pay for a license, then you'll have the complete picture, and understand why the pressure on some fish stocks is already too high.

"One of our main goals is to ensure that artisanal fishing becomes sustainable," adds Dr Diouf. To achieve this WWF, the conversation agency, is working closely with the fishing community of Kayar, some 60km north of Dakar. There, fishermen are already on the road towards sustainability. They are well organized, have set up committees for each type of fishing activity, reduced the daily operations, and limited the allowable catches. Pressure on resources has been stabilized. WWF aims to use Kayar as a model that could be imitated in other fishing centres in West Africa.

"It's another reason why it's imperative that the fishing agreements with the EU better take into account our local fishermen's needs," concludes Papa Samba Diouf. "For example, foreign fleets should not catch fish that is also targeted by Senegalese vessels. If their interests are not protected, how can local fishermen understand why they must improve their practices?"

Olivier van Bogaert is Press Officer at WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.

Related links:

WWF's West African Marine Ecoregion project

WWF's work in the Western African Marine Ecoregion

Emptying the Ocean: the threatened fisheries of West Africa

Africa Geographic magazine