How can Senegal combat illegal fishing?

Senegal's once-abundant fish stocks have attracted a spate of illegal activities, at a great cost to the country and local communities.

The Senegalese coastline is one of Africa’s richest fishing grounds. Generations of communities have depended on fishing to make a living, but more recently, these once-abundant stocks have attracted a spate of illegal activities.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has become one of the main maritime threats facing the West African nation. Unauthorised industrial fishing ships, in particular, have been plundering the country’s reserves. The result is an annual loss to the state of 150 billion CFA (US$272 million).

Last year, the Oleg Naydenov – a Russian trawler – was seized and its crew arrested by the Senegalese navy, with support from the French. This was one of many cases where unlicensed European and Asian vessels exploit West African waters, taking advantage of weak surveillance systems. With a crew of 82 sailors, this 120-metre-long ship is capable of processing an estimated 20 000 tonnes of fish annually. It would take 645 canoes typically used by small-scale, or artisanal, fishers to take away that tonnage per year.

Illegal fishing in Senegal led to an annual loss of US$272 million

Russia was sentenced the maximum fine under Senegalese law of 400 million CFA (about US$727 000), and the cargo was confiscated. A key question, however, is how many vessels of this kind continue to operate illegally in West Africa without being apprehended.

The Oleg Naydenov would likely have been used as a case study for the Senegalese legislators who drafted the country’s new fishing code, which was enacted in July this year.

They may have been inspired by this example to raise the financial penalty to a maximum of one billion CFA, or US$1.8 million. An area of concern, however, is that the law does not make it mandatory for fishing vessels flying the Senegalese flag to have observers on board.

Just because a vessel is Senegalese does not, of course, guarantee that it will fish in a lawful way. An unmonitored national ship could still operate in prohibited areas, carry out unauthorised commercial operations at sea and make false logbook entries. This is also true for a licensed, but unmonitored foreign vessel.

A report published yesterday by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) investigates claims by the chairman of an organisation of traditional fishermen in Senegal’s Ziguinchor region, namely the inter-professional economic interests group of Cap Skirring, that vessels in possession of shrimp permits haul in large numbers of species in additional to the shrimp (by-catch), which they then throw overboard, already dead. ‘A shrimp trawler can take in five tonnes of fish and take away only 200kg of shrimp,’ the organisation complains.

In the same vein, non-governmental organisation (NGO) Greenpeace has condemned Chinese ships for falsifying reports of their catch in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea to minimise fees due to the state. Greenpeace estimates that these falsified statements have incurred losses of 372 million CFA (US $676 000) to the Senegalese economy between 2000 and 2014.

A shrimp trawler can catch five tonnes of fish and take away only 200kg of shrimp

This amount may even be greater, since investigators were unlikely to have discovered all instances of fraud. Greenpeace also reported that some 114 Chinese ships were involved in 183 cases of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone. These ships, among other things, failed to obtain licences, used non-regulatory mesh and fished in prohibited areas.

Beyond the economic loss suffered by the country and those fishermen who comply with regulations, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing destroys marine biodiversity.

Twin trawling – a technique practised by illegal fishermen known where two or more trawlers are harnessed together – not only captures immature species, but also destroys fish breeding areas.

The ISS report further reveals how artisanal fishermen in the region of Ziguinchor also conduct illegal fishing – both inland and out at sea. These fishermen often use banned monofilament nylon nets, which have a tighter mesh and capture immature or undersized fish. This has a negative effect on species reproduction and growth. When these nets wash away at sea, they suffocate fish on the seabed and can take up to 40 years to disintegrate.

In addition, artisanal fishermen do not always respect protected fishing areas. On 13 August this year, the Senegalese navy seized two canoes operating illegally in the protected area of Ngaparou, a town located 80km south of Dakar.

Beyond economic losses, illegal fishing also destroys marine biodiversity

Yet, as stated in the ISS report, Senegal’s fishing activities play a vital socio-economic role. The sector employs 17% of the labour force and the livelihoods of several communities depend on fishing activities. As a result of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, Senegal’s fish stocks have dropped significantly, and its fishermen are drawn to operating illegally in other countries’ maritime spaces.

This has happened in Guinea-Bissau, where the maritime authorities have arrested Senegalese fishermen for failing to seek permission or for using fake licenses. Similarly, the arrest of 17 Senegalese fishermen for illegal fishing in Morocco, reported by the media last October, might also have been a consequence of depleted fish stocks in Senegal.

The Senegalese state has launched several initiatives to help the country’s artisanal fishermen. Encouragingly, local authorities and artisanal fishermen organisations are being granted the right to manage fish unloading sites. Royalties are collected and shared with the city councils, which provide public lighting and sanitation. The state provides oversight via the Local Committees of Artisanal Fisheries, which are chaired by departmental prefects.

The ISS report suggests, among other things, that mechanisms to promote fish reproduction and growth be established and strengthened, and that vessel monitoring systems be reinforced. It also encourages the state to grant more responsibilities to professionals in the management of artisanal fisheries. In this way, Senegal could not only hope to effectively rid itself of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, but could also do so in a way that protects the security of its other precious resource: the population.

Barthélemy Blédé, Senior Researcher, André Diouf, Intern, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding division, Pascaline Compaoré, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division, ISS Dakar

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