Overfishing in Senegal

Senegal’s Missing Fish from beatleya on Vimeo.

Fish accounts for 40-75% of the Senegalese people’s protein (UN Food & Agriculture) & the local industry has traditionally employed hundreds of thousands of Senegalese (male and female).  It’s safe to say that as fish go, Senegal goes.  A culture built on the foundations of one of the world’s most productive fisheries is at risk of disappearing.

For us at CCS, fishing, eating fish, and getting to know fishermen is a way of understanding one of West Africa’s most important countries.  When we’re on the Atlantic, eager participants cast lures for the remaining species that still patrol the surf and offshore reefs.  When we’re with Alioune Kebe and his family in the working-class neighborhood of Parcelles, the smell of fish helps us understand its vital importance as a food source.  When we’re on the beach in the early mornings, we get to help local fishermen set out for weeks on the water.  These stories bring Senegal to life and weave together narratives that connect the small coastal nation to the rest of the world.

Although Senegal is unique and its culture of fishing is noteworthy, the story of these waters finds its greatest utility in the universal lessons it helps underline.  The fisheries of the world are rapidly declining – stories of successful management are vastly outnumbered by instances similar to Senegal’s story of an epic collapse.  The people of Senegal can help us understand our own story.  In the end, the questions sparked by understanding what’s happening are perhaps more valuable than the answers.

An Economic Resource

  • Fishing has long been one of the region’s most important economic sectors.  As the demand for minerals and other resources has ebbed and flowed, the demand for fish from Senegalese waters has steadily increased.  Worldwide distribution networks have sent Senegalese fish to sushi tables and restaurants in almost every corner of the planet.  Local markets revolve around buying and selling fish.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people work in the industry.  Many of them are fishermen, a respected occupation.  In some areas, these brave mariners are local heroes.  Customs and ceremonies celebrate the seasonal migration of fish along the coast.  It is hard to imagine Senegal without its fishermen.
  • Thousands more work in the industry – building and repairing nets, servicing engines, transporting fish, selling and processing different species for different purposes, maintaining markets, building boats, and much more.  Everywhere you go in Senegal, some part of the fishing industry employs people.

A Food Staple

  • Senegal’s national dish is thieboudienne.  Eaten from the salty coast to the arid heartland, thieboudienne literally means rice & fish (thieb = rice and dienne = fish).  It’s the staple.  For a country known to produce some of the tallest and strongest people on earth, fish is an essential source of protein.
  • In simple terms, the price of any item goes up as demand for that item increases.  Similarly, prices increase as supplies wane.  For Senegal’s fish, this has meant a perfect storm of macroeconomic changes.
  • CCS’ friends in Dakar, the Kebe family, and others have reported that fish prices in the local market have increased tenfold.  Where they used to be able to afford small grouper or other species for most meals, these families now struggle to buy any at all.  For a family of 7 like the Kebes, this means many stomachs now going hungry as protein slowly decreases in the diet.

An Environmental Indicator

  • Senegal’s fisheries are also an important indicator of the health of the surrounding and associated environments.  When fish stocks are healthy and abundant, this means that the underlying conditions are right.  A thriving fishery requires a strong system of nurseries that support small fish and masses of baitfish that help larger fish grow rapidly.  Sustainable fish markets will have appropriately sized fish – too small and it means you’re cutting the resource off before fish are big enough to breed & too large and it means you’re killing the most productive adults.  For scientists, a visit to a local fishing fleet and market is often enough to tell how things are going.

Put simply, Senegal’s fishery is on the brink of complete collapse.  Many factors have come together to empty these once-famous fishing grounds.  20 years ago, Senegalese waters were amongst the most productive on earth.  Fishermen could stay within a few miles of shore and fill their boats with valuable and good-eating fish.  Today, it’s hard to find fish at all in the areas surrounding the major fishing fleets.

Development Deals

  • In the 1970s and 80s, Senegal signed development deals with European nations.  These agreements provided Senegal with important resources to fuel development.  In charge of a young country (Senegal gained independence in 1960), the Senegalese government needed money, expertise, and logistical support in building its core institutions.  The needs of an emerging economy, new political mechanisms, essential social services, and other functions incentivized foreign involvement.
  • At the time of negotiation, Senegalese waters were producing around a few tens of thousands of metric tons of fish each year.  The crystal clear waters of the Atlantic mixed with the nutrient-rich tidal outflows of the Sine Saloum, Gambia River, and Casamance region to create ideal conditions for large populations of fish.  Most of these fish were caught using traditional fishing methods from pirogues, the storied boats of West Africa.  Many fishermen plodded the waters without engines or basic safety equipment.  Few people living in Senegal at the time could understand the scope and scale of an industrialized fishing fleet.
  • The development deals gave European boats legal access to Senegal’s prized fishing waters.  Within a few years, the relatively low production of the artisanal fleet was surpassed 10 fold by foreign trawlers.  150,000 metric tons were taken each year on average during the 1960s.  As trawlers made their way to more and more Senegalese ports, localized competition between foreign boats and domestic fishermen exploded.  More and more pirogues were built and licensed in response to the obvious increase in both domestic and foreign demand.  Tens of thousands of Senegalese joined the industry.
  • By the 1990s, 350,000 metric tons were being taken from the waters each year. Many of these fish, now known around the world, were being shipped directly to fishing markets outside of Senegal.  Even as harvesting expanded, local access dwindled.  Foreign money overpowered the spending ability of Senegalese families.  (http://www.fao.org/3/y4961e/y4961e0i.htm).
  • Although the artisanal fleet could never fully compete with the foreign trawlers, they did have a massive local impact.
  • At the same time, the fisheries of the Mediterranean and Asian waters began to collapse.  A few decades ahead of African in terms of development, these regions were already straining to meet the needs of an expanding population.  The boats that once fished off of Japan or Spain were now looking for new grounds.  More and more countries joined development deals or simply broke the law to catch fish off of Senegal.

A Lack of Regulation & Monitoring

  • With the backdrop of a rapidly expanding fishing industry to deal with, Senegal’s government could not keep up.  Through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, the Coast Guard and Navy had between them only a few boats to patrol the coastline.  Some say that the Coast Guard, whose chief responsibility is protecting coastal resources, had just one functional boat at any given time.
  • To its credit, Senegal used its limited resources to create a system that could monitor boats during the day.  They created outposts along the coasts and manned them with agents who could use binoculars and telescopes to monitor fishing activity near the coast.  This helped regulate some near-shore reefs and fishing grounds until the big trawlers adapted their tactics.  By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that the big boats would simply wait until nightfall, approach the coast with their lights off, and strip the ocean of life in the shadow of darkness.
  • As foreign fishermen looked to evade regulation, they also moved fish processing offshore.  Big processing boats would accept loads of trawlers in international waters, bypassing the chance to regulate at ports along the coast

Climate Change

  • Senegal’s fishery is like every other fishery in the world.  As conditions change, so does it productivity.  The warming of the ocean has become one of the region’s most impactful changes.  Although temperatures continue to fluctuate, warm waters have swept along the coast for years at a time.  These conditions shift historic fish migrations, exacerbating the overfishing pressures.
  • Key baitfish like sardines are the backbone of great fisheries.  They allow resident fish to grow large and support the migratory patterns of pelagic species.  These sensitive swarms are pushed out quickly by changing temperatures – even a few fractions of a degree in temperature change can push them out.  Small fish are sensitive and big fish rely on them.
  • “Satellite data indicate that the waters off northern Senegal and Mauritania are warming faster than any other part of the equator-girdling belt called the tropical convergence zone, once known to sailors simply as the “doldrums.”” (Ocean Shock – Reuters)


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New Technologies

  • Competition between local fishermen and foreign trawlers increased under the pressure of population and economic gain.  Artisinal fishermen sought new ways to compete with big trawlers.  They went in search of new ways to catch fish and found nylon nets, GPS units, and more.
  • Fishing illegally, some trawlers were dredging the entire ocean floor.  They pulled up the essential underwater structure that had served as nurseries for local and pelagic fish species.  These devastating tactics were ruthlessly effective.
  • Local fishermen adopted the use of nylon nets to similarly collect everything they could from the ocean.  These nets can last for thousands of years underwater and now litter the bottom of Senegal’s coastal waters.
  • GPS equipment allowed fishermen to fish further and further from their home waters.  Even very basic systems linked to cell phones allowed fishermen to identify and access waters that were previously out of reach.  This made fishing more productive and also more dangerous, as men stayed out fishing for weeks at a time where they used to just go for a day or two.

Regional Population Growth

  • Local demand is partially to blame.  Like much of Africa, Senegal’s population has expanded rapidly in the past decades.  Improved healthcare and lowering infant mortality rates have meant more and more Senegalese people are living to old age and more and more babies are making it through the first year of their lives.  As populations have expanded, so has demand.
  • The population of Senegal has always been clustered.  Much of the country is too arid for year-round habitation.  Nomadic peoples have found a use for almost all of the country at different times but permanent settlements are concentrated along the Senegal River and the Atlantic coast.  In part, this reality explains why Senegal is home to so many different tribal groups.  Each good place to settle has seen groups come and stay AND the separation between habitable lands means that there are gaps that keep different groups isolated.  Many areas were not actively connected until the Europeans developed roads to transport valuable goods (gold & slaves).
  • Because of Senegal’s demographics, increasing populations had major impacts on local environments.  In particular, the massive population increase around Dakar and the Sine Saloum Delta exaggerated impact on sensitive areas of the fishery.  Nurseries became exploited to meet demand and the seasonal harvesting practices that had been developed over centuries were abandoned to provide food.

Today, it’s impossible to visit Senegal and miss the signs of overfishing.  Regardless of where you go, the evidence is everywhere.  Abandoned fishing boats litter beaches.  Young men, once proud icons of their communities, gather in the shade of villages along the coast, waiting.  Large markets, once rich with the smell of fish being bought and sold, are now vacant.  Where there is fish to buy, it is now sometimes imported and many times the price of what it used to be.  Diets are changing.  There is no denying the collapse of the fishery.  Senegal is taking steps to try to save its most valuable renewable resource:

  • In 2012, the newly elected president of Senegal, Macky Sall, revoked fishing licenses for big vessels from Russia, Comoros, Lithuania, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines and Belize.  For the first time, Senegal told fishing groups with known histories of overfishing and exploitation that they were no longer welcome.  At the same time, the country did not renew licenses with European and Asian interests.  Although many boats stayed illegally, the line was drawn in the sand.
  • In January of 2014, Senegal doubled down on its commitment to protecting its fisheries.  In a landmark case, the main court of the country convicted two Russian trawling boats with violating Senegalese law.  The two boats paid an estimated 1.24 million USD in damages.
  • Foreign countries, recognizing the relevance of overfishing around the world, also joined in to support Senegal’s efforts.  The head of the EU Commission on Maritime Affairs and Fisheries banned the import of fish from Guinea, Cambodia and Belize, all countries known to support illegal fishing in Senegal.  South Korea has also received a formal warning and the same is presumed informally for China and Japan.
  • The United States, France, and Spain also sent boats and naval forces to Senegal to help patrol the waters.  Although they are also motivated to stem the outflow of illegal migrants leaving West Africa through Senegal, these boats have played an invaluable role in increasing the capacity of monitoring bodies.

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