Joal is Senegal’s largest fishing port. But the 1,500 wooden pirogues gathered there aren’t protected by a harbour wall, as they might be in Europe or the US. Rather, they are strung along a wildly colourful – and vilely smelly – 10-mile long beach. It’s a small but significant sign that all is not well.
About 120,000 tonnes of fish a year are landed at Joal – equal to the quantity of a major Scottish fishing port like Peterhead at its peak in the 1950s – and the port employs 10,000 or more people to offload, sort, pack, process, freeze, smoke and sell the fish. Such numbers hardly suggest a problem, but the reality is that Joal – along with dozens of other ports in Senegal and along the west African coast from Morocco south to Sierra Leone and Togo – has been devastated by falling catches in the past 20 years.
A burgeoning population and a general lack of work means Joal’s fishing community is now twice as large as it was a decade ago. Fishermen are chasing fewer and fewer fish in ever more crowded seas. More than 1 million people in Senegal alone depend directly on the sea for their staple diets, yet catches last year in Joal were 75% down compared to 10 years ago.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation says all west African fisheries are fished to capacity or overworked. Incomes are plummeting, and the knock-on effects are more poverty and hunger.
Here’s what a few people at the fish market in Joal told me:
• “Twenty years ago we could not have imagined that people from Joal would be eating sardines and sardinella. There were much better fish to eat. Now it’s all we catch.”
• “There used to be flies all over the town, because people would throw away fish, they were so plentiful. Now there are no flies because no one throws anything away.”
• “Only two years ago, fishermen could get loans and pay them back. Now we can’t get credit. Our families cannot pay for their water, electricity or schools.”
• “I was born a fisherman. I can’t do anything else. But as the population goes up here, so everyone wants a boat. I have five boys and they didn’t go to school because 25 years ago they did not need to. Fishing was good, well paid work. I trained them.”
Joal’s prospects are not good, I fear, unless the government, the EU and the fishing fleets change their ways. The foreign trawlers argue they are not targeting the same fish as the locals, but fish don’t respect arbitrary six-mile limits. Foreign operations inevitably affect the ecology, making it impossible for local industry to compete. The argument that they then sell African fish to Africans doesn’t hold water, either. It’s not much compensation if you are a Mauretanian, or Senegalese, to know your fish has been caught by a British trawler and then sold to the wealthy of South Africa or Nigeria.
The EU, which spends nearly 1bn euros a year on subsidising its fishing fleets around the world, must acccept the morally dubious nature of the agreements it signs allowing its fishing fleets to work in developing countries. Most are deeply unfair, designed to subsidise big European industry as it takes fish from some of the poorest people in the world.
Why do African countries sign these agreements if they are so damaging? The simple answer is that, while they understand fully that environmental damage and the depletion of native fish stocks far outweigh the short-term financial gains they can make, they have no choice. Most desperately need hard foreign currency to pay external debts – often to EU countries – and stimulate economic growth. The EU fishing agreements are just too attractive to turn down. On top of that there is corruption, which leads to countries signing secret deals with corporations and individuals.
So what should be done? Here’s a selection of ideas from west African fishing organisations, Greenpeace and the Environmental Justice Foundation, which is working in Sierra Leone and Guinea to help protect local fisheries.
1) Stop the use of flags of convenience by fishing vessels. They give a perfect cover for illegal activities by helping the beneficiaries of pirate fishing to avoid detection and penalties.
2) End EU subsidsiues that encourage legal fishing fleets to enter the waters of developing countries and take what they can.
3) Press for international measures to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
4) Help developing countries combat illegal fishing by supporting coastguards and navies.
5) Reduce the size of foreign fleets.
6) Set up large-scale marine reserves.
7) Insist foreign trawlers land a percentage of their fish in the country whose waters they fish.
Otherwise, the west African fishing grounds, one of the greatest resources of fish left in the world, will collapse, just as happened to the cod stocks off the east coast of Newfoundland, the blue and yellow fin tuna fisheries of the Mediterranean and Pacific, and many species elsewhere.
• John Vidal’s travel costs to Senegal were paid by Greenpeace
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