How pirate fishing fuels human exodus from Africa to Europe

Illegal fishing to feed European demand for seafood is devastating coastal communities in The Gambia and across West Africa - forcing many people to leave their homeland and make a perilous and sometimes deadly voyage to Europe

Fishing by traditional methods is vital to The Gambia. It provides one of its main exports and is a major source of employment. According to the UN, the livelihood of over a third of all Gambians is linked to fishing. It is also crucial to the health of many of its 1,688,359 people, providing a source of much needed protein, minerals and vitamins.

Unfortunately, the fish stocks along the 80 km coast of this poor and densely packed country are dwindling and life for both the full-time and the part-time fisherman is getting harder.

Like many other communities based around the African coast, Gambian fishing communities are being adversely affected by the foreign-owned fishing fleets working offshore. The local fishermen claim that immature locally important species are caught unintentionally by foreign fleets and discarded as ‘trash fish’ or ‘by-catch’.

Factory trawlers operating within The Gambia’s 12-mile exclusion zone are said to be decimating fish stocks. Greenpeace estimates that sub-Saharan Africa loses US$1 billion dollars every year due to the activities of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (or pirate fishing). According to Brian O'Riordan, the secretary of the Belgium office of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, one European super trawler has the capacity to catch in one day what it would take a fleet of large canoes to catch in one year - with good fishing.

But this over-harvesting of the ocean’s larder is not just pushing fish stocks to collapse - it is also creating pockets of poverty up and down the West African coast. Take away the fishing and there are few options for those in fishing communities but to move elsewhere.

And move they do, often across dangerous seas in an ill-equipped pirogue (a dugout canoe with an outboard engine used by most artisanal fisherman) with little food and portable water and at great risk.

Means of escape

At Tanji, a fish smoking village on the Atlantic coast, a young man comes up to me. ‘You think I want to be like these old men, working all day for nothing, sitting in the stinking hot sun and waiting for boats to come in with no fish and selling to people with no money?’ he says.

‘You think I want to watch the small numbers of fish I finally get rot and stink because the government gives us no money and no storage? No. I would rather take my chance and go away on a pirogue and try to get to Europe. Maybe I make it alive. Maybe I die. What difference does it make? I am just going to be poor if I stay here and be a fisherman.

‘If I die going to the sea for trying to get to Europe I know that I have tried to go out and find a job in your countries and send money back to my family. The only thing the ocean is good for now is for getting away,’ he continues.

Other young fishermen standing on the shore echoed his words. All of them agreed that the trip would be worth the potential death traps.

And there are death traps galore. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 31,000 Africans in 901 boats, and boats is a rather ambitious word for some of the vessels, attempted to travel from West Africa to the Canary Islands in 2006. 20 per cent of these seafaring migrants died or went missing at sea.


In the fish market in Bakau, a group of young boys and men are listening to the radio. The station is interviewing a young man who attempted to sail the seas in search of a new life and a better source of income. Describing his experience he explains how many of his fellow passengers went mad, committed suicide or ate each other. This young man failed in his attempt and has decided not to make the trip again.

Whether his fellow countrymen are listening to his tale of woe is doubtful. One man explains to me that the government is just paying the interviewee to say lies and that if he had the chance and the money he would try to sail away tonight because there is no money to be made here at the fish market and there is plenty of money to be made in the Canary Islands.

‘All these politicians tell us not to go and we will die and we should stay here and work hard and make lots of money,’ the fisherman says. ‘These people who say this are liars, just big fat liars with lots of money in their pockets and lots of money in other countries. We can’t make money here and if we can’t make money here we will die and so will our families. So, we might as well go out. Either way we could die so what difference does it make if we go or stay except we have a better chance and our families have a better chance if we get on a pirogue and make it to Spain?’

Another man tells me that if he was rich enough to own a pirogue, he ‘would sell it to a people-smuggler.’

‘The people-smugglers are the ones with money now,’ he explains. ‘They make thousands of dollars in every trip. They take our money and they get us to Spain and then we make money and send it home. The only way to make money in a pirogue now is to catch people, not fish.’

The fishermen complain that the size of their total catch and the size of individual fish is declining. The women, who are responsible for most of the on-shore handling, processing and marketing of fish, complain that the fishermen are not bringing in enough fish for them to make a profit. The young students, standing outside a market stall looking for a snack, complain that the cost of fish pies has escalated. The mother of three, sitting in the village no longer making fish ball stew for family, complains that the price of fish is too high.

Hatib, a full-time worker in one of the government departments fishes on the weekends to get extra food and tells me: ‘The foreign boats come in and they have better machines and better engines and better ice. We are just poor Gambians with boats made from trees and engines fixed with broken wires. You toubobs (whiteys) have the money and the power and we have nothing and you take the fish away and we go hungry.’

Empty seas

It is not just Gambian waters that are being emptied of fish. According to Ousman Drammeh, a previous Gambian Director of Fisheries, up and down the West African coast foreign ships are encroaching into restricted zones and engaging in extensive illegal fishing.

In fact, IUU fishing off the coast of West Africa is truly extraordinary. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), aerial surveys of Guinea's territorial waters found that 60 per cent of the 2,313 vessels spotted were committing offences. Surveys of Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau over the same period found levels of illegal fishing at 24 per cent (of 947 vessels) and 24 per cent (of 926 vessels), respectively.

Over the years, the EJF, Greenpeace and the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements has followed some of these illegally caught fish and shown that Las Palmas in the Canary Islands acts as a major hub for fishing and fish transport vessels in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (or pirate fishing) throughout the west coast of Africa and allows illegally caught fish to enter the EU market.

Right now Europe is consuming more fish than its own waters can provide – almost half of Europe’s fish consumption depends on non-EU produce. As long as the EU continues to serve as a marketplace for IUU fish and Las Palmas serves as a major entry point, the illegal plunder of fish stocks from West African waters will continue.

According to the EJF and the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements (CFFA), Las Palmas acts as a major “port of convenience” for vessels involved in IUU fishing in West Africa. Unfortunately it is now also acting as a major port of inconvenience for many out-of-work West African artisanal fisher folk.

The Canary Islands are considered to be the largest point of entry for fish from West Africa coming in to Europe. It is also considered to be one of the most popular points of entry for West Africans coming in to Europe.  When I consider the comparisons between fish and fisherman entering Canary Island space, I am reminded of something a Tanji fish smoker said to me.  ‘The toubob countries care more for our shrimps and fish than they do for our people. Our food goes in the good boats to Europe and our people go in the bad boats to die.’

Dawn Starin is an anthropologist and writer who has spent many years working in west Africa 

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