Senegal stopped renewing agreements allowing European fishing vessels in its waters in 2006, but now an expanding artisanal fleet and local industrial boats enjoying exclusivity under lax regulations are being blamed for malpractice and degrading the country’s main economic and food resource.
“In terms of environmental degradation, the responsibility is shared. Artisanal fishermen are responsible for habitat destruction. Although industrial vessels and foreign ships are often blamed, artisanal fishermen contribute hugely to the disappearance of species,” said Moustapha Thiam, the director of Senegal’s Maritime Fishing Authority, a Fisheries Ministry department.
Foreign industrial trawlers are often criticized for overfishing off the West African coast, where some governments are also accused of issuing unregulated licences that overlook the consequences to local economies and livelihoods.
“Industrial fishing has really reduced. Small-scale fishing is quite dynamic,” Thiam told IRIN. Of the 409,429 metric tonnes of fish caught in 2010, artisanal fishermen contributed 370,448 tonnes, according to the Maritime Fishing Authority.
Fishing is Senegal’s foremost economic activity, employing around 15 percent of the workforce - about 600,000 people - and is the main foreign currency earner. Local consumption is 28kg per person per year, twice the world average, and 75 percent of protein in the diet comes from fish.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that there were around 16,000 small fishing boats in Senegal in 2011, compared to about 5,000 in 1982. [Situation de l’immatriculation des embarcations de type artisanal]
“It is the sector with the biggest socio-economic impact locally,” said Ahmed Diamé, a Greenpeace Africa oceans campaigner. “Among the problems are the use of the wrong net size and dynamite… With free access to the resource, [artisanal] fishing has significantly increased. We have noted a reduction in catches since 2000. There is also a decline in the quality of fish caught - they are smaller,” he noted.
To boost the sector, the government subsidizes fuel and equipment for the local fishermen. “What needs to be revised is the quest for short-term profit. This is what drives the sector and what kills it. There is free access to the resource because fishing is not regulated,” said Papa Gora Ndiaye, secretary general of West Africa Fishing Policy Network (REPAO), a regional NGO.
“When we were kids, we could see big fish caught. But nowadays, we need to go very far to catch anything,” said Yakhya, a fisherman in Soumbédioune, one of the fishing ports along the shores of Senegal’s seaside capital, Dakar.
In the days when local boatmen navigated by instinct, returning to a rich spot happened by chance. “There is no more mystery. When I was young, if you found a good spot, it could take a few days to find it again,” said retired fisherman Papa Nguer. “Now all the boats have GPS [global positioning system].”
The government is trying to regulate the sector, registering and controlling the licences issued to local fishermen, but critics argue that these measures are not enough in a country where fishing is the main source of income for millions.
“The state has to decide to reduce the fishing capacity. It is useless to have fishing permits if the fishing fleet is untouched,” said Gaoussou Guèye, the head of a local association for responsible artisanal fishing.
“There are subsistence and economic issues at stake. The problem is to control without generating social catastrophes,” said Captain Djibril Diawara, the head of operations at the Fishing Monitoring and Protection Authority (DSPM).
Few industrial vessels have ventured into territorial waters since Dakar stopped renewing Fishing Partnership Agreements with the European Union. Now, the industrial fishing fleet is mainly local, others in joint venture with Europeans and there have been accusations of corruption and favouritism.
Authorities say the fleet is mostly old, poses environmental risks and often fishes in protected areas. The DSPM has six boats, none of which can reach the high seas, a plane that has been under repair for two years, and a staff of 150.
“It is an aging fleet. Most boats are more than 30 years old, which means they have more destructive fishing practices,” said the Maritime Fishing Department’s Thiam.
With the support of a programme funded by the World Bank, the government plans to reduce the number of artisanal boats by 25 percent and ground the old industrial fishing fleet, Thiam said.
Implementing the plan will be arduous. “Suggesting that the state should stop subsidizing fishermen to reduce fishing capacity raises questions about the risk of fish becoming more expensive for the Senegalese people,” said Greenpeace’s Diamé.
”Experts call for sustainable fishing and environmental protection. “The industry should be bolstered, providing it with means to use the resources in a sustainable and profitable manner.” He called for the creation of marine reserves in the high seas where fishing is banned.
“Fishing and the number of fishermen should be reduced,” Guèye said. “Not everyone can be a fisherman or a fishmonger. There should be a fisheries management plan - we cannot have congestion,” he suggested.
“It is up to the government to set up these plans. It has the responsibility to manage the resources for the future generation.”