A fleet of colorfully painted pirogues docked along the shore at Yoff Tongor, a bustling fishing village in Senegal’s capital, was once a rare sight in late afternoon. But the long canoe-like boats left empty after a day’s fishing are becoming increasingly common as locals now think twice before venturing out to sea. The reason: depleting oceans.
In a country where over one quarter of the national budget comes from fishing exports and fish account for roughly 75 percent of the animal protein in the national diet, fish are crucial to Senegal. But a number of factors, including non-regulated fishing, overfishing and climate change are causing the fish to disappear.
“Before, the ocean was so full,” said Abdoulaye Gueye, perched on the tail of his pirogue. “My first solo trip in the ocean was in 1986. Back then, you could go out to sea and say I want to fish for this specific type of fish. If you went out you could get a fish and give it back if it wasn’t what you wanted. Today, no matter what kind of fish you catch you have to get it and bring it back in order to provide for yourself.”
Gueye is president of the local fishing association of Saff Gniekh where he tries to do what the fishermen say the government does not: protect the oceans and support their industry.
The association does what it can for the needs of fishermen around Dakar. It also hires women to make pots for fish to safely reproduce at sea, without the risk of being caught.
“It’s working so far, we’ve seen a lot more fish in those areas,” Gueye said of the association’s initiatives. But they remain a tiny part of a larger problem.
It’s what Ibrahima Cissé, head of the oceans campaign at Greenpeace Africa, calls a “social bomb”.
“We can’t starve the population; risk essential needs of the population so people can’t even eat, and have no jobs and hope to have stability. It’s not possible,” he said.
Cisse said communities were up to 40 times more reliant on local fishing than on industrial fishing. This includes those who live far from the shoreline.
“We’re talking about all of the sub-Saharan countries, even the ones that are not coastal countries, like Mali and Burkina Faso,” he said. “We (Senegal) are getting their resources, if we have a problem here in Senegal with fish then they can’t get their fish either.”
Senegal issues about 30 fishing licenses to foreign and local fisheries per month, according to APARAM, a local fishing association.
Many fisheries with a license are accused of illegal activity, which can be broken down into three categories: illicit fishing, non-declared fishing, and non-regulated fishing.
Locals report seeing large industrial boats fishing illicitly. “If we even try to get close to those large industrial boats they fire up their engines in order to force us away. They don’t want us to see what they are doing or how they are doing it,” said fisherman Ousseynou Diagne Baye Cheikh.
For Cisse, illicit fishing is so rampant partly because it’s difficult to enforce equal deterrents across West African oceans.
“Regulations in the sub-Saharan region are disproportionate,” he said. “If sanctions in Guinea and Sierra Leone are different than that in Senegal or Mauritania a boat can pillage the oceans in Senegal and as soon as they are identified they can quickly go to a neighboring country with lesser sanctions or where sanctions no longer apply.”
Gueye said big vessels that often under-declare their catch were draining both the seas and the hopes of the local community.
“Big boats do not have the right to come in and fish in our zones, but we see them anyway. All of these fishermen that you see on the shore have no other hope than the ocean, these children that you see playing don’t have any other hope than the ocean,” he said.
Despite campaigns calling for a review of liscences for vessels committing tonnage fraud, Senegal has yet rescind any of the licenses they issued to these large-scale boats, Greenpeace Africa reported.
Another problem is non-regulated fishing, where boats with licenses to fish for shrimp or octopus, say, fish tuna and other species instead. This drastically decreases the number of fish in the sea and skews catch statistics, pushing local fishermen further out to sea only to return empty-handed.
Today, thanks to a group of concerned fishermen backed by locals, 12 protected fishing zones now line Senegal’s coast, in addition to the five Marine Protected Areas put in place by the Senegalese government.
“We noticed that the resources were getting rarer and rarer and that we could manage things in a better way, so the population started doing what they had to do,” said Abdoulaye Ndiaye, a fisherman in charge of a protected zone in Ngaparou Somone, south of Dakar.
The eight-kilometre zone has become known as a fishing paradise among locals.
“We started putting things in the zone that would help fish reproduce, but people can still fish there because it’s not a zone that is completely closed off. It’s actually divided into three zones. The zone that is in the middle is reserved for artificial reproduction, that is the only zone where fishing is completely disallowed,” said Ndiaye.
The Senegalese Institute of Agricultural Research of Dakar Thiaroye has reported a three-fold increase in aquatic life in the Ngaparou zone since its implementation in 2014.
Despite some localised successes, Cissé said much more needed doing to ensure sustainable fish stocks and food security for Senegal and other West African territories.
“There needs to be an evaluation. That will permit the stock to replenish and renew itself while still keeping in mind the food security demands of the population,” he said.
“If that’s not done... we will have to import fish more and more while our own concentration of fish is decreasing every day,” he said.
Without license revisions and better regulation, local initiatives like the one in Ngaparou will not be able to keep up with global demand and the hope of local fishermen seeking a sustainable way of life is likely to dwindle.
“You know here, we are fishermen from birth, our dads are fishermen and from a young age we’re taken out to sea and then you’re given a boat so you can learn how to fish on your own,” said fisherman Ousseynou Diagne Baye Cheikh.
“Then you become a captain and eventually you have a team. We don’t even go to school, we only know the sea.”