From Senegal

Senegal: somebody else's sea

Massive presence of foreign fishing boats puts Senegalese fishermen out of work

6 min
Two young men from the hinterland working in the fish drying area at the port of Saint Louis

Saint-Louis (Senegal)In Saint Louis, a northern Senegalese city and former colonial capital under French rule, a female spirit is said to watch over and protect the town and its inhabitants from death and other evils. She is called Mame Coumba Bang, and is considered the goddess of the ocean - which surrounds the town - and of the Senegal River - which crosses it to meet the sea. Historically, the people of Saint Louis have performed rituals to please the goddess: from throwing a piece of lamb meat into the river when a baby is born to ensure its protection, to reserving an important place in the house to paint her image.

The sun sets brightly over Guet Ndar, the city's fishermen's quarter, and hundreds of dugout canoes rest on the riverbank, waiting to go fishing. Many of these brightly painted canoes bear the image of Mame Coumba Bang to defend them from the ocean's wrath. But for the past few years, Senegalese fishermen have been praying to the goddess of the sea to protect them from foreign companies which, with the consent of the Dakar government, exploit their sea and, they say, leave them without fish. Yogo Diège is the sturdy captain of one of these traditional boats. When we ask him about the situation in the sector, he is overcome by demons. "The government has sold our sea. It is condemning us," he says angrily. He assures us that, offshore, there are boats from all countries: Chinese, Korean, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese... "They take everything and we are left with the remains. How is it possible?" And he continues: "If I think about the amount of fish we caught a few years ago and what we catch now, I swear I would burn the boat".

Nearby, a group of young people who work for him nod as they check and fold a huge fishing net that they will use again the next morning: "The government has sold our sea."

Neo-colonial plunder

The overexploitation of developed countries' seas and the global increase in fish consumption led the big fishing companies to start looking to Africa decades ago. Over the years they have been consolidating: from the waters of Mozambique or Tanzania to those of Guinea-Bissau, Gambia or Mauritania. But the case of Senegal, a country that has always been linked to fishing and where the sector directly and indirectly employs more than 700,000 people, is the most significant. The latest agreement with the European Union, for example, authorises 43 French, Spanish and Portuguese vessels to catch 10,000 tonnes of tuna a year. It also allows two Spanish-flagged trawlers to catch 1,759 tons of hake. But the European vessels are only a fraction of the 200 internationally flagged vessels operating in Senegalese waters.

A fisherman's boat unloading its catch by the Senegal river

The locals are especially afraid of the big Asian boats: they denounce that they often fish without a licence or with hidden agreements and that they accumulate tons and tons of fish for days at sea, which they then sell all over the world. The destinations are many and diverse: from wholesale markets like Mercabarna to the frozen sections of French or Italian supermarkets. They also make canned fish that can be found in Russia or the United Kingdom. Or the feed used in Saudi Arabia to fatten chickens, or in Romania to feed pigs, or in Norway for salmon. And in this area, China is the dominant power: it has established itself as the leading importer of fishmeal, which it obtains by crushing small fish that it catches indiscriminately in African seas and then uses to make food for all kinds of animals.

The lack of data and studies makes it difficult to quantify the economic and social impact this is having on local fisheries, which continue to use traditional methods and gear that have survived from generation to generation. But there are some reports, such as the one published a few years ago by the NGO Ayuda en Acción, that give an idea of the magnitude of the problem: the volume of catches by local fishermen fell from 95,000 tonnes to 45,000 tonnes between 1994 and 2005. A hard blow for a sector that is the country's main source of foreign currency and represents almost 3% of the total GDP.

Yes to fish, no to people

A few weeks ago, Dr Aliou Ba, Greenpeace's political adviser in Senegal, emphasised the irony of this reality. "Europe leaves Africans without fish, but Europe does not want African immigrants". And on the Senegalese coast, one of the starting points of the migratory route to the Canary Islands, this reflection is shared. In a courtyard in the fishermen's quarter of Saint Louis, a group of men drink tea and reminisce about better times. "Before, we fishing families didn't lack anything. We lived well. But that seems to be over. If fishing doesn't work, nothing works," says one of them.

A young fisherman rests after a night's work

Another man, dressed in a white tunic, throws a question into the air: "How can we stop our children from taking skiffs if we can't find a way to make a living?". They all agree on one thing: every night they sleep in fear that, when they wake up, one of their children will also have decided to risk their lives to reach Spain by boat. A few streets away, on one of the main beaches of Saint Louis, the arrival of fishing boats after hours or days at sea is constant. Every two or three minutes one appears. When the sailors stop the canoe, the women check the catch before it's transported to the box near the sand, where an infinite number of trucks wait to load the fish.

Similar scenes take place on the banks of the Senegal River, which has become a makeshift stage where local people come to buy the fish directly from the boats. Two women negotiate and finally reach an agreement: two euros for a generous handful of sardines. But the seller complains. "Bad, bad... It's very difficult like this".

Small and cheap fish

And it's not just the quantity, it's also the quality. Now they fish mainly sardines, gilthead bream and other smaller and cheaper fish that some time ago they didn't even bother to catch. More valued species, such as monkfish, tuna, grouper or barracuda, are for the international boats. Next to them, a group of teenagers dressed in football shirts of European teams are sat on a mountain of empty boxes, looking bored. They offer to transport the fish from the incoming boats. But there is no work. Most of them have not made any trips today. Those who have made the most - three - have earned 900 CFA francs, that is, one euro and forty cents. They came to the Senegalese coast from inland villages to find work and help their families, but say the same thing as many young people in the city: "If I can get on a skiff, I'm going to Spain".

But the feeling in Senegal is that this feeling of a country sold to foreign states and companies goes beyond the sea and fishing. Despite the fact that the so-called country of teranga -hospitality, in Wolof - gained independence from the French in 1960, the French legacy and presence is still very present in Senegalese everyday life.

You can see it as soon as you arrive at Blaise Diagne International Airport, in memory of the first black African deputy in the French National Assembly. Or when driving from the airport to Dakar, the capital, along a motorway managed by a French company, where Peugeot, Renault and Citroen cars abound. Or when you go shopping at the nearest Auchan -a French supermarket chain- and pay with CFA francs, the currency shared by fourteen African states, inherited from French colonial rule. Or when they explain that the high-speed train line being built to link Dakar with the airport is a project of the French groups Engie and Thales.

Saint Louis fishermen push a boat into the seat

And it is not only France. Many of the large constructions that can be seen in the streets of cities like Dakar, Thies and Mbour are managed by foreign companies coming from Turkey, Gulf countries and, above all, China. Or in agriculture, where patterns increasingly similar to those in the fishing sector are repeated: large foreign companies - also Spanish - exploit large fields of crops and condition the work of small farmers, who represent a significant part of the Senegalese economy. Mamadou Thiam, a resident of Mbour, a city in southern Senegal, warns: "The watermelons that you eat in winter are grown here. In Mbour, the fields have been planted where there used to be vegetable gardens belonging to local farmers."

This is part of an ARA series on Senegal. Other articles deal with the young Senegalese who are willing to risk their lives to come to Europe and those who want to stay and change the country.