During the two-day African Union Summit this month, Senegal and Mauritania signed an accord allowing Senegalese fishers to catch up to 50,000 tons of fish in Mauritanian waters. The agreement is the first signed between the two countries since the previous accord expired in 2016, partly due to Senegal’s concerns over demands that all fish caught in Mauritanian waters be landed in Mauritania.
Along with much of the Sahel, Senegal currently suffers from acute food and water insecurity. While the situation is less acute than for many neighbouring countries, around 46 per cent of people live in poverty, while close to 20 per cent are food insecure. Levels of poverty are especially high in rural areas, where agriculture, animal farming and fishing are the main occupations. Fishing alone accounts for around 20 per cent of the country’s working population. It is vital to the coastal communities that either sell or use the fish, but also to the country as a whole, where up to 75 per cent of the population’s protein intake comes from fish.
The importance of fishing to Senegal’s economy and to the survival of its coastal communities is being undermined by a crisis endemic to West African fisheries. Stocks are being dramatically over-exploited and fishers are increasingly struggling to catch as many fish as they have in previous years. According to data from the Senegalese Ministry of Maritime Fishing, there has been an 81 per cent drop in the number of fish caught since 2016, despite a growing international demand. Like much of the world, the fisheries surrounding West Africa are significantly overfished. Consequently, as the catch in Senegal has declined, its fishers have increasingly been forced to risk sailing across borders for a worthwhile catch.
Climate change has contributed to the depletion of fish stocks in West Africa, but illegal fishing in the region also carries a significant share of the blame. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has significantly depleted fisheries in the region, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warning that more than half are dangerously over-exploited.
IUU fishing in West Africa accounts for roughly 40 per cent of all fish caught; a situation that has steadily depleted fish stocks for decades. The process has accelerated significantly in recent years, as China’s fleet of distant-water fishing vessels has grown rapidly, swelling to 2,600 boats. Estimates indicate that up to two-thirds of Chinese distant-water vessels engage in IUU fishing practices. Although IUU fishing is also practiced by Senegal’s own fleet, many Chinese ships are large enough to catch as many fish in a week as the average Senegalese pirogue can catch in a year. A European Parliament report has also indicated that fish caught by China’s fleet worldwide is likely to be up to twelve times higher than reported to the FAO.
While China’s fleet is the most significant, it is far from being the only culprit engaged in exploiting West African fisheries. The EU, which is the largest market for seafood imports in the world, was responsible for importing over €1 billion ($1.5 billion) of illegally caught fish, and many of its own member states engage in IUU fishing practices. Russia is also responsible for a portion of the fish caught illegally in the region.
As the fisheries of West Africa are preyed on by foreign trawlers, local communities are paying the cost. The price of fish increases almost daily and the economy loses each year. The agreement to allow Senegalese boats into Mauritanian waters will improve the safety of these sailors, but long-term sustainability remains a threat to livelihoods.