Foreign fishing vessels have been depleting Senegal’s marine stocks as coastal cities suffer from rising sea levels.
Madj and Bouba prepare to set sail just as the sun sets behind the peeling buildings overlooking the small harbour of Soumbédioune in the city of Dakar, central Senegal.
An experienced artisanal fisherman in his 40s, Madj knows the waters of Dakar like the back of his hand. He does not own a boat, but he often accompanies Bouba, the young captain of one of the many colourful wooden pirogues that line the harbour and make up Soumbédioune's fleet of informal fishing vessels.
Artisanal fishing refers to traditional or subsistence fishing – as opposed to commercial trawling – mostly a family activity passed down the generations.
The fishermen leave the shore before nightfall, heading towards the Madeleine Islands, an archipelago just a few miles off the coast of Dakar. In just a dozen minutes, Madj and Bouba are off the coast of one of the islands, Sarpan, and head to what is considered one of the best squid fishing grounds in the area.
After careful observation of the seabed, Madj drops anchor while Bouba hustles with a 12-volt battery, flashlights and electric cables.
This traditional type of fishing is done with the assistance of lamps lowered a few metres into the water to attract fry and night predators like squid.
The horizon is dotted with white lights. “It’s the foreign fishing boats,” says Madj. “You have to be on your guard because if they come at full speed, they can’t see us from up there and risk ramming us, as has already happened.”
Squid, sardines and trout are in demand in Dakar’s upscale restaurants and regional markets. But most of the catch is destined for the mass retail market in Europe, Asia and North America.
“I fell in love with this job by seeing the catches of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. Those were real fish! Today we mostly catch small fish, or African fish,” Madj says.
“What little is left of the tuna, swordfish, shrimp and most prestigious crustaceans is exported,” Madj says, as he throws sand from a bucket into the water to attract night predators.
The ‘adventure route’
According to the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program of the World Bank, Senegal has some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. But over the last decades, the informal fishing industry – which employs more than 600,000 people in Senegal, contributing 3.5 percent to the national GDP – has been experiencing the worst crisis in history.
Like many Senegalese artisanal fishermen affected by the crisis, Madj is perennially in the lookout for side jobs to provide for his family.
“A lot of young people in recent years have abandoned the sea to look for work on land,” he recounts, adding that it includes some of his friends and relatives. “Several have taken the ‘adventure route’ by migrating elsewhere in the region, or to Europe.”
The migration route to Spain’s Canary Islands – one of the world’s most dangerous – has been back in the spotlight since 2020. Since then, more than 50,000 sub-Saharan nationals have arrived at European shores through Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), it is even more deadly than the central Mediterranean route.
A report published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last June warned that the sustainability of fisheries is in danger in some countries where fishmeal production is on the rise, including in West African countries where catches are increasingly turned into fishmeal for export.
The crisis, which affects the health and diet of Senegalese citizens, is widely blamed on overfishing by foreign vessels. But experts say that climate change is also increasingly putting livelihoods at risk.
“The local fish market is now poorly supplied and overpriced due to overfishing and depletion of fish resources perpetrated by large foreign fishing vessels,” Aliou Ba, a Senegal-based senior policy adviser at Greenpeace Africa, tells TRT World.
A report published in June 2021 by the Changing Markets foundation and Greenpeace estimates that more than 500,000 tonnes of fish are caught off Africa’s western coast each year and hoarded by foreign (especially European) processing industries. Natural resources that, the report points out, could feed 33 million people in the African region.
“At the same time, industries, again foreign, for processing fresh fish into fishmeal and fish oil for export to European, Asian and American countries are flourishing on the coast.”
These products, which are increasingly in demand on world markets, are used as feed in the intensive farming of animals or other more valuable fish – such as, for example, salmon in Norway and Sweden – or as ingredients in the cosmetics industry and in pet food manufacturing.
“Senegalese fishermen, like their colleagues in neighbouring countries, live in a dramatic situation,” Ba says.
For Ba, strategic resources such as yaboy – an endangered pelagic sardine particularly used in the fish oil and fishmeal processing industries – should be protected and managed in a more forward-looking manner by African governments, especially in a regional and global context destabilised by conflicts and climate crisis. Yaboy is a key staple of the Senegalese diet, rich in iron, zinc, and vitamins.
“Coastal and bottom erosion, which also causes the destruction of infrastructure and homes of informal fishers, is violent in Senegal and is exacerbating the many challenges that threaten artisanal fisheries,” Ba adds.
Studies have shown that small pelagic fish, tuna and related species are profoundly affected by climate change that causes rising sea levels and water temperatures, as well as more extreme Atlantic storms. Changes in offshore wind speeds and the upwelling of nutrient-rich waters that those species feed on, are also among the negative effects of climate crisis on Senegal’s informal fishing sector.
Back on Madj and Bouba’s boat, the young captain stands up suddenly as the vessel swings dangerously. In his eagerness to pull the catch aboard, the first squid escapes his grasp, splashing his face with ink. But it is but the prelude to a hearty hour of fishing, with several large squid and one cuttlefish caught.
On returning to port, Madj peers at the sun peeking back behind Dakar's buildings, puffing tiredly and clutching his woollen hat. His tense face opens into a smile only when his bare feet and bucket full of squid touch the fresh sand on the shoreline. All that’s left for this exhausted man is to entrust his catch to the Soumbédioune market vendors, return home, wash up, smoke, and rest for a few hours before the next trip out to sea.