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Senegalese Traditional Fishing Problems

Updated on July 19, 2017
Pirogues drawn up upon the beach
Pirogues drawn up upon the beach

Senegal is a country which is defined by the sea, both in its history and in its present state. For centuries, commerce, the movement of peoples, and political influence have come from the ocean, and today the sea is the gateway of Senegal to the world. Thus, the waves bring to the country its future: yet, they also bring it something even more profound for the daily life of the Senegalese : fish. As well as supplying a significant part of the Senegalese food supply, fishing gives to Senegal some 600,000 jobs, the majority of which stem from traditional fishing. Resultantly, this vital industry is at the heart of Senegalese life.

Before continuing further, it is necessary to define what is traditional Senegalese fishing. In Senegal, "Pirogues" are small boats, little bigger than canoes, which function as fishing boats. They are extremely brightly colored and painted, which has also influenced the trend of "car rapides" on land - brightly painted buses which constitute a majority of transport in the city of Dakar. Traditionally propelled by oars and sails, they currently rely almost entirely on diesel mortars. The advance of motors has given them an increased range, enabling them to chase fish further out to sea. If one goes to Senegalese beaches, one can also see the gratitude which Senegalese fishermen must hold to these diesel motors, which save them the back-breaking effort of manually fighting against the tide when bringing their boats and nets in and out of the water. However, such developments have also added to the problem of overfishing, ecological degradation, and harsh foreign competition means that the living standards of fishermen are continually more depressed.

This was not always the case. Although the Senegalese fishing industry has faced adversary winds, it had prospered at times despite them. In fact, during the 1990s, the number of traditional fishers rose, surpassing 50,000 working directly in 1995. With a high increase in unemployment during this decade, fishing provided at least some income, and resulted in the increasing transformation of the Senegalese into a fishing people. Perhaps the most profound example of this was the Lebu people, who have over time - well before the present in fact - been steadily transformed from a principally agricultural, to a fishing people, especially in the representations of them. It is an irony that the very conditions of modernity, linked to increasing unemployment, have resulted in Senegal developing its traditional industry.

Fishing has brought its problems and difficulties as well. The increasing in the number of Senegalese fishermen joins a long history of overfishing which has brutally winnowed the fishing stocks of the Atlantic ocean, with harvests for Senegalese fishermen standing at more than 400,000 tons per year, not counting foreign fishing boats. Furthermore, this figure is due only to an immense struggle on the part of Senegalese fishermen, and for individuals, competition is continually fiercer, due to the decline in fishing stocks and the increase in the number of fishermen. Nets which broke in yesterday under the weight of fish now come up empty, and the fight between fishermen is a true "tragedy of the commons" - where private need drives over-usage of a collective resource, and making gaining a livelihood harder and harder. Bad nets, with excessively small holes, result in infant fish being taken, while the vast amount of trash in the sea has caused huge problems for fisheries.

Thus fishing stocks are in decline, and with it in some locations the harvest has fallen too - at the city of Joel it is some 75% below that of a decade ago. Resultantly, the price has risen, so that it more than twice what it was just a few years ago. For fishermen, without the fish to sell, the increase of price is not a comfort, while for fish processors on shore, this is disastrous, causing them economic catastrophe. Consumers also stand to lose. For the Senegalese, a cruel irony is that some 40% of their production is exported abroad. All of these problems are interconnected.

Even more problematically for the Senegalese fishing industry is foreign competition. While Senegalese fishers are unable to harvest enough fish, they face ceaseless foreign competition from foreign fishing boats. Some of these are legal with fishing licenses and some fish illegally, but both of them cause immense problems for Senegalese fishers. For the Senegalese government however, they are a necessity, as Senegal does not have enough revenue collected internally. Thus, up to 3/4s of Senegal's revenue comes from foreign fishing permits, often heavily subsidized by foreign governments such as the European Union. On land, foreign-owned factories for processing caught fish, most often that which is caught by foreign fishermen as well, lead to additional problems for fish processors on land. In exchange for the installation of these factories, local communities are offered gifts such as stadiums or schools, as well as the number of jobs that they supply to the local work force, but they lead to crippling damage to fishing industries that stand at the heart of local economies. Under the president of Macky Sall, some 29 of the 44 fishing permits issued under the previous presidency of Abdoulaye Wade have been cancelled, but foreign fishing continues to decimate vulnerable local fishing stocks.

The future for the Senegalese fishing industry is unfortunately not one which can be portrayed in happy light, and sadly its misfortunes and problems will not cease. If the rapacity of foreign fishing fleets and the continual over-exploitation of its fishing stocks do not soon cease, a final collapse will occur for Senegalese fisheries. For Senegal, a country which gains such a vast quantity of its food from the sea, this situation is disastrous, and for its fishers, even worse. But regardless, we can be certain that Senegalese fishers will always make their courageous way out to the sea, to attempt to gain something from its rough waves.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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