In terms of illegal fishing, 60 percent of all illegal infractions in Senegal is by Chinese vessels
Sady Ngom’s morning did not start well. His nets were almost empty. There are no takers for his meagre catch, despite his booming voice luring over potential buyers. He slams his haul onto wooden tables overlooking the sea at Dakar’s Soumbedioune fish market, pouring a fresh coat of ice on top.
Things are more expensive and the housewives who pack the beach are being understandably selective. Ngom has been fishing Senegal’s waters for the past 15 years. “We used to be able to catch a lot of fish,” says the 31-year-old. But that was years ago.
Ngom’s frustration is a reflection of growing tensions between local fishermen and foreign commercial vessels competing for the regions marine resources.
“Fishing has been spoilt by the Chinese,” he says. “They do their fishing indiscriminately at the expense of us artisanal fishermen.”
As well as being a vital source of food, West Africa’s fertile fishing zones provide seven million Africans with jobs. Plundered unchecked for decades, its dangerously exhausted stocks face new pressures.
China is pumping $60 billion into development projects across the continent. Meanwhile its trawlers - the world’s largest fleet of distant water fishing vessels - haul around $340 million worth of reported fish out of West Africa annually. This figure could be more.
A European Parliament report suggested fish caught by Chinese vessels globally may be twelve times the actual amount China reports to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Pushed to the brink
Fishing - the lifeblood of Senegal – is a business that employs 15 percent of its population. “In terms of illegal fishing, 60 percent of all illegal infractions in Senegal is by Chinese vessels,” estimates Dyhia Belhabib, a fisheries scientist and programme manager at Ecotrust Canada.
Many operate under legal licenses but frequently cross into unauthorised artisanal zones. They also favour bottom trawling which destroys the seabed.
“The vessels that are fishing illegally in neighbouring waters often have agreements with one of these countries,” says Belhabib.
In 2015, Greenpeace found 74 Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the region. Stolen fish costs West African economies some $2.3 billion a year – the highest level of illegally caught fish worldwide. In Senegal specifically, $300 million worth of fish is stolen yearly -- around two percent of its GDP. Stocks are dwindling, “we have to travel further out to sea and set off much earlier,” says Ngom.
They do so in traditional wooden pirogues suitable for coastal fishing but dangerously ill equipped for the high seas. “They go to Sierra Leone, they go to Guinea-Bissau and that's not their traditional range. That has increased dramatically as a result of the infringement on their own waters,” says Belhabib.
The pressure to maintain a living also pushes many into unsustainable activities lured by the prospects of higher wages working on illegal foreign ships. “It is something that's growing, and it's very frustrating for traditional fisherman,” adds Belhabib.
‘They have nothing’
Ibrahima Cisse is a senior oceans campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa based in Dakar. He has seen how shrinking margins have forced some to abandon the business altogether.
“They go to the sea they cannot find anything so they come back,” he says. “It's the same ones that are taking the boats to go to Europe. Because they don't have any more fish to eat, they don't have work they don't have nothing.”
On a Sunday morning such as this, 37-year-old Moussa Tè, a fishmonger, buys up to 100 kilos of fish from Soumbedioune. “But every day the price is increasing,” he says.
He methodically examines two white groupers known locally as “thiof.” The fish is often served in the national dish thiéboudiène but is now a rarity in fresh markets due to local overfishing and foreign exports.
Their gradual decline can be traced as far back as the 1980s says Belhabib. “Back in that time China was not even in those waters it was all by the EU,” she adds.
A few fishermen tell me Chinese vessels have simply moved into the space vacated by Europeans, albeit at alarming speed. Almost all nations employ predatory tactics in West Africa that have resounding impacts.
Pelagic fish such as sardinella make up 85 percent of Senegal’s protein consumption. Russian fleets target these to go to processing plants where they become animal feed on farms. “So basically fish that's otherwise going towards domestic markets and food security,” says Belhabib.
Research done in 2014 by Belhabib and her colleagues found that Russian fleets took around 300,000 tons of fish, equivalent to the country’s entire yearly artisanal catch, mostly unreported.
By also under reporting their GRT (vessel capacity), industrial trawlers avoid paying higher fees. Under reporting alone contributed to a loss of $2 billion between 2010 and 2015, says a study in journal Frontiers in Marine Science, and nearly all European countries, Russia, Japan and South Korea were found culpable.
“It's not exclusively Chinese vessels that's for sure,” says Steve Trent, executive director of Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), who are fighting illegal fishing in West Africa by arming locals with equipment to film and report illegal incidents in their waters.
The London based group’s investigations found various foreign vessels illegally fishing in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Some ships also operate under ‘flags of convenience’ giving them greater access Trent explained. “You will find the financial economic benefit accrues largely in China but they could be flying the local flag of Senegal or Guinea,” he says. “More than half of actual so-called Senegalese fleets is foreign,” estimates Belhabib.
Environmentalists believe transparent agreements and information sharing between West African countries could counter the growing threats to food security.
“Certainly some operators in the past have just factored in fines into their cost of accounting so you want the fines to be of a sufficient deterrent and again with transparency,” says Trent. “It shouldn't go into an official’s pocket.“
Around $14 million was recovered in fines last year compared to the $2.3 billion lost annually. If West African governments were tougher on illegal fishing and invested in their fishing industry, they could generate theoretically $3.3 billion, against the $400m raised in 2014 from selling foreign licenses at below market value, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
Senegal has dramatically increased fines for illegal fishing – currently up to $1 million – curbing possible back pocket payments.
“You can hide $3,000 in a file that you took in your pocket but you cannot hide $1 million in your pocket just like that. So it's shifting in a very positive way,” adds Belhabib.
In 2012, the nation also stopped granting licenses to foreign trawlers for small pelagic. But without others following suit, it has minimal impact. Mauritania, for example is home to 20 fishmeal factories, of which roughly half are Chinese-owned.
“You cannot have a local approach by country,” says Cisse, explaining why Greenpeace is pushing for the establishment of a regional fisheries management body.
“We need harmonisation of regulation between all West African countries... if they have the same regulation it means if the Chinese are fined for fishing illegally in Guinea Bissau they will pay the same as in Sierra Leone or in Senegal.”
Governments working together in limiting foreign rights sales would go a long way. “When a country decides to write an agreement this should be based on unexploited stock and not put in risk the livelihood of people in the region,” says Cisse.
He believes there is a moral and financial imperative for international authorities to also intervene. As the world's largest fish importer, the European Union’s economic influence is massive. It imports roughly $954 million worth of fish from West Africa and has previously provided funding towards cracking down on illegal fishing in the region.
“That's why we are saying the European Union has the legal responsibility to push and to support this regional management,” says Cisse.
“If you have these different regulations and managements the risk of food security and immigration to Europe will continue… they have a responsibility and not just jumping from country to country because they want to find a good agreement for their vessels.”
Senegal is among the top 10 countries of origin for migrants arriving in Italy. As the number of commercial vessels increase, for locals, there are fewer fish left to follow. More than half of stocks from Senegal to Nigeria have been overfished.
Earlier in June, seven Chinese ships were detained for fishing illegally in Senegal. In 2013, FishSpektrum data identified more than 600 Chinese fishing vessels off the coast of West African countries. Western Africa’s missing fish.
“People will have to react eventually,” says Belhabib, highlighting Somalia where illegal fishing hardened fishermen to piracy in the 1990s.
“In Senegal the alternative to employment is fishing and if you lose that in a country where there is low employment, lower education etcetera you will have an issue of social peace.”
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a freelance journalist based in London. She can be followed on Twitter @nosmotg