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Fishing for a future

World crisis in fish stocks a matter of life and death

Special Report: Global fishing in crisis

Jamie Wilson in Mbour, Senegal
Monday August 14, 2000

The Guardian

It was four days before Anta Gueye knew for certain that her youngest son was dead. Cheik, 16, was one of seven fishermen who had pushed out the small canoe-shaped fishing boat through the waves from the beach in Mbour, a dusty fishing village 50 miles south of Dakar on the west African coast.

The men had planned to be at sea for three days - a long time in a boat with no shelter on the unpredictable Atlantic waters. But the fish that were once plentiful nearer to the shore have disappeared, and they have to travel further afield to find the shoals.
It happened while the crew was sleeping. One moment they were curled up on the piles of oily nets, the next they were in the water, the pirogue splintered into matchwood.

The steel hull of an industrial trawler, one of the many from the developed world that now ply their trade in the waters off the west African coast, had cut the small pirogue in half. The men clung on to pieces of the wreckage, calling out to each other, as the trawler ploughed on towards the horizon.

As the waters settled the men swam together, knowing their only chance of survival was to stay close together. But there was no sign of Cheik; his crewmates said he had tied himself to the side of the boat to guard against a freak Atlantic wave tossing him overboard during the night. When the trawler hit he had been unable to free himself and was sucked under the water. They never found his body.

The six survivors spent a cold night clinging to the driftwood, talking and praying to stop from falling asleep and slipping under the swell. The next morning the men were rescued by another pirogue fishing the same waters.

Cheik's brother Ousseymon had suffered a serious gash to his leg in the collision, but the hard economics of life for the fishermen of Senegal meant the rescue boat could not return to Mbour until the crew had caught enough fish to cover the cost of the trip. By the time they reached shore nothing could be done to heal the suppurating wound and his leg had to be amputated.

Anta Gueye waited on the beach, hoping her missing son had been picked up by another fishing boat. By the fourth day all hope was gone.

For the fishermen of Senegal incidents like these have become a common occurrence. Arona Diagne, who is president of the Senegalese independent fishworkers' association, CNPS, said that more than 300 men have been lost in accidents with trawlers in the waters around Mbour over the last two decades.

With the rapid depletion of fish stocks in Europe and Asia, trawlers from France, Spain, Italy, Japan and Taiwan as well as the former Soviet republics have targeted the fertile waters off west Africa to keep pace with their countries insatiable appetite for fish. Seventy-eight EU boats are licensed to fish in Senegal in a deal that nets the government in Dakar 7.5m a year.

The Mbour fishermen rarely know where the boats responsible for the accidents come from. Often they are fishing illegally inside an area reserved for the artisan fishermen, but the boats cover their identity numbers with mud. They turn off their lights so they cannot be seen from the shore at night, with the inevitable result they cannot be seen by the pirogues either. According to the local fishermen, when the accidents happen, the trawlers never stop.

Even if they do identify the boats fishing illegally, they are rarely penalised. "The industrial boats are very powerful with a lot of money and they can buy their way out of trouble," Mr Diagne, who is still an active fisherman in Mbour, said. "They corrupt the persons who are meant to stop them. The bribe is everything."
For the fishermen of Mbour it is not just their lives that are at stake but their livelihoods.

The Joola is one of Mbour's largest pirogues and its catch supports a number of families in the town. Her crew, including children and old men, had set out early one morning when the sun was giving off a gentle warmth. Now it felt like razor blades on the skin.

At the tiller was Doudou Gaye, 30, who, like generations of his family before him, has been fishing off the coast of Senegal since he was a boy. While the men brewed strong tea on a charcoal fire burning inside a car wheel hub, a look out kept a sharp eye on the ocean surface hoping to spot the tell-tale dark circle created by a shoal of sardines.

A few miles off the coast the pirogue passed a fleet of trawlers, brimming with the latest technology to help find the fish, and trailing mile upon mile of nets.
Apart from the addition of an outboard motor, boats almost identical to the Joola could have been seen in Senegal hundreds of years ago.

The crew rely on the human eye and their knowledge of the sea to find the fish. But as the shore submerged to a shadow on the horizon the captain was getting restless. Fuel for the trip cost 70 and with a quarter of the day gone there was no sign of the prize that would pay the bill.

"It used to be we could catch what we wanted when we wanted," he said. "But now many of the fish are gone, some species altogether, and what we used to be able to catch in an afternoon now might take as long as three days."

In the local dialect, Wolof, they call the sardine " yaboye" - fish of the poor. For 85% of the population of Senegal it is a staple part of their diet, providing a vital source of protein for the millions who cannot afford to buy meat.

Its importance makes it the cornerstone of the artisan fishing industry, which directly or indirectly employs more than 400,000 people in Senegal - roughly 10% of the population - from the fishermen to the women who gut, smoke, boil and sell the catch.
But like the higher quality fish that used to proliferate along the west African coast the number of sardines have been decreasing at an alarming rate due to the influx of industrial trawlers. The sardine is a migratory fish that makes its way up and down the coast of west Africa, passing through the territorial waters of Mauritania before they reach Senegal. The EU has an agreement with the government allowing 22 trawlers of unlimited capacity to fish the Mauritanian coastal waters.

The main beneficiary of the deal has been the Dutch pelagic fleet and its new breed of "super trawler" - 144 metres long, roughly the size of a cross channel ferry, capable of carrying 7,000 tonnes of fish with a range of 22,000 miles. The Dutch boats are the biggest trawlers ever made and are equipped with state-of-the-art fish-finding and winch technology able to deliver more than three miles of net into the ocean.