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More Fish in the Sea?

Diminishing fish stocks due to foreign over-fishing are endangering the food security and livelihoods of many in West and Central Africa.
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A local fisherman in Cameroon. Photograph by Jon Bowen.

Douala, Cameroon:

Samuel Diouf is one of hundreds of Senegalese making a living through artisanal fishing. The 20-year-old trades his daily catch at the Hann Bay fish market on the coasts of Dakar. By African standards, his income is enviable.

“I earn about $30 a day when the catch is good”, he tells Think Africa Press, adding “it isn’t most of the time. The money helps pay school fees for my sisters and medical care for my family of seven. My mother manages the income, saving part for the tough times.”

However, the sustainability of fishing and fisheries-related activities – and the associated livelihoods of Diouf and an estimated 600,000 Senegalese – is in danger. In recent years, conservationists have repeatedly warned of dwindling stocks in the West Africa Marine Ecoregion stretching from Mauritania to Guinea. Most point to over-fishing by European fishing fleets, which force small local fishing boats to concentrate their efforts in sensitive coastal areas.

Dwindling stocks in Cameroon

Thousands of miles away in the Cameroon, the situation is similar. The country boasts 15,000 square kilometres of continental shelf and four million hectares of inland waters. Yet current local fish production remains around 157,000 tons per year, while demand is around 300,000 tons.

As a result, Cameroon’s fish imports rose to nearly 200,000 tons in 2011 (up from 150,000 tons the previous year). The Citizens’ Association for the Defence of Collective Interests (ACDIC) warns that the figure will further rise this year. It blames rampant malpractice by foreign trawlers in the face of stagnant fish supply, especially Chinese-flagged vessels.

“They are still doing twin-trawling despite several government warnings, and are using small-mesh nets to fish even in off-limits waters reserved for local artisanal fishermen. And worse still, they dump the smaller fish in Cameroon and take the bigger ones to Europe,” claims Albert Njonga, chair of ACDIC.

Along the country’s 400-km coastline, artisanal fishermen and traders are stretching the limits of legality to stay in business. One current practice is the use of chemicals, including pesticides, to indiscriminately kill fish which are then scooped out of the waters.

“What do you expect? I am not the only one using gamaline [a chemical used to kill the fish]”, says Alexis Njwel, a fisherman at Cameroon’s biggest fish market in Douala. “Everyone is doing it and traders partner with us to buy the chemical and contribute in paying fines of about 50,000 FCFA ($100) when we get caught”, he adds.

Senegalese struggles and solutions

In Senegal, similar troubles have led industrial and artisanal fishing to slump. Experts blame overexploitation and a dramatic rise in habitat-destroying fishing techniques like the use of dynamite and twin-trawling.

According to researchers at the Oceanographic Research Centre in Dakar, disregard for scientific recommendations by the government, weak enforcement of regulations and the granting of licenses to foreign trawlers are aggravating the problem. The centre has been monitoring the Senegalese fisheries’ resource quantity and quality, the changes in biomass of various fish types, and factors influencing habitats since 1974.

“We generate periodical reports on changing trends which we serve the Ministry of Agriculture and other competent government institutions” explains Anis Diallo, data manager at the centre. “We are currently observing a rapid depletion of stocks for some species. But the decision-makers keep dragging their feet. There’s a lack of political will to implement our recommendations including a complete fishing ban on threatened species and an extension of biological repose to enable regeneration of stocks.”

Meeting in Cameroon in late September, officials of the Regional Commission for Fishing in the Gulf of Guinea (COREP) warned that the current stock depletion rate is dragging West Africa to the brink of food insecurity and instability as well as the evaporation of income for millions.

“We recommend urgent rethinking by governments of fisheries governance policies to address issues including archaic data on available resources, limited research capacities and harmonised intervention strategies,” says Sloans Chimatiro, Senior Fisheries Advisor at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a COREP partner.

He adds: “The activities of foreign vessels must be closely monitored possibly with the use of satellites and high-speed patrol boats to check undeclared fishing; corruption by law enforcement officials must be severely punished; countries should set up large marine reserves; EU subsidies must be reconsidered, etc., [or] else the strains on fish stocks in this part of the world will run out of control.”

Unsustainable problem, sustainable resistance

Experts say it will require robust political will for such recommendations to be implemented and consolidated. For one thing, even if enacted, regulations would likely be flouted unless strong measures were introduced to ensure reluctant authorities enforced new rules. It is also the case that government may be afraid to rock the boat of an important economic sector. Foreign companies with fishing licenses bring in money and the sector constituted 13% of Senegalese exports and 1.7% of its GDP in 2009, according to the Ministry of Maritime Economy.

“The sector has wide-ranging socioeconomic connotations” says Hamet Diadhiou, chief of the Dakar Oceanographic Research Centre. “The government dreads upheavals from fishers if bans are imposed and that’s why our recommendations are stuck in the drawers”.

Meanwhile, research findings indicate that six deep-water large fish species are steadily drifting towards extinction. Harvested specimens show declines in both weight and length.

Diallo explains: “It implies that they are increasingly fished out of the water before they can reproduce. The larger fish types take two to three years to reproduce. We also found that smaller pelagic fishes are the only ones surviving the depletion along Senegal’s 448-km coastline.”

Pelagic fish dwell near the ocean surface. They include mackerels and sardines. While they are more vulnerable to fishermen’s nets, they have a high reproduction frequency with intervals of about six months. “Look around for yourself” says fisherman Diouf. “There are no large fish any more like carp and hake which cost more. So you can see I am affected because I would have been earning more like my elder brother used to do when the larger fish were abundant many years ago.”

For Diouf and most of the fishermen and vendors at the Hann Bay market, the real trouble will begin when the pelagic fish types begin disappearing too. Senegal’s geographical location in Africa’s Sahel region renders it prone to droughts and pests which periodically damage farmlands. As in Cameroon, fishing provides a vital alternative and source of food and livelihoods. But to ensure its sustainability, government must wake up and begin enforcing regulations to limit the exhaustion of vital stocks.

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