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Saving West African Fisheries

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Off the coast of West Africa, a host of nations ranging from Mauritania to Nigeria rely extensively upon fishing to provide both vital food for the region’s populations and economic security in an area with high unemployment and few other prospects. However, this beneficial economic activity is threatened by environmental degradation, transforming it from a strength to a potential disaster. Any choices and decisions are tightly constrained by a fixed amount of resources, in this case fish, available in the region. The relative shares of foreign and domestic fisheries cannot be altered due to the necessity of international fishing to the region’s economy, making it difficult to initiate any change. Resultantly, policies must be developed to be able to mitigate the relative decline of fisheries and preserve fishing stocks. This is necessary to ensure regional security, prevent rises in poverty, and guarantee food security for the target countries of the West African coastal economies of Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. With the assistance of NGOs such as REDES, Enda Tiers Monde, Union internationale pour la conservation de la nature (IUCN), Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), and the international community, as well as indigenous efforts themselves, the problems facing West Africa can be mitigated. This article will discuss both the problems experienced in the region, a variety of proposals to attempt to solve them, and the limitations which any policy marker faces.

It is important to note that the difficulties of West African fishing carry substantive international consequences. Poverty and lack of opportunities for people in the region have been important drivers concerning emigration to Europe, where 80% of the boat migrants are fishermen. The prevention of this politically charged and destabilizing subject relies upon stability at the source. Within the region, poverty and destabilization can drive civil wars and conflict, notable given that West Africa lies upon the frontline of the battle against terrorism. Thus, preventing these negative outcomes relies on ensuring a stable and productive fishing industry.

European fishing involvement

European fishing involvement


Politically, West Africa is split into a large number of different governments which makes formulating a cohesive policy somewhat difficult. Although ECOWAS—The Economic Community of West African States—exists to provide some measure of coordination, in fact governments in the region make their own policy. Furthermore, they have dramatically different levels of involvement in fishing, from regional highs in countries like The Gambia to lows in Liberia. Thus, they have divergent interests which makes a common policy difficult to achieve. In fact, the countries of the region can be directly opposed, as fishermen from some countries infiltrate the water of other countries to fish for constantly diminishing stocks. Fishermen unions exist for some groups, such as Senegalese artisanal fishers, but they are often ineffective.

The Senegalese government provides substantial subsidies towards its fishing sector, including facilitating credit contracts, direct subsidies for fuel (which dominates the cost of fishing), fixed costs, and zero-rating inputs. This is both to encourage economic growth but also to ensure a stable food supply. More recent have been direct subsidies in engines, added onto pre-existing tax exemptions. Fishermen however, are highly critical of the degree of state support which they receive, viewing it as quite insufficient. The government subsidizes fish exporters simultaneously, thus harming internal consumption for the sake of foreign exchange.

Despite competition between the artisanal and industrial fishing sectors, local governments have granted fishing licenses to foreign governments. For example, Senegal has had commercial agreements with the European Union since at least 1979. More recent fishing agreements have been signed with the China and Korea. The Senegalese government does make an effort to protect its artisanal fishermen through designated fishing zones, up to six miles out to sea. Industrial trawlers cannot fish within the border, and the artisanal sector cannot fish beyond. However, this regulation is little respected, neither by domestic nor international trawlers, and foreign trawlers are often falsely registered as Senegalese.

Saint-Louis in Senegal, showing the dilapidated living conditions to the far right.

Saint-Louis in Senegal, showing the dilapidated living conditions to the far right.

Economic and Environmental Challenges

In West Africa, the fishing sector is vital in providing for employment of 6.7 million people, food security in a region where 30% of the population is estimated to suffer from malnutrition, as well as foreign exchange for the countries involved. Production by artisanal fishing (fishing conducted by boats with outboard motors below 100 hp, or more rarely sailing) has grown dramatically, from 274,000 tons per year for the former in 1950 to 1.4 million tons per year in 2010. This has taken a near quadrupling of the number of boats, meaning actual efficiency gains are minimal. In recent years, effort expended has outpaced catch and decreasing returns on investment are quite evident in some sectors. However, these numbers might be underestimated because artisanal fishing catches are very underreported, possibly only half of their actual value. Meanwhile, after peaking in the early 90s at 15.8 million tons per year, industrial catches have actually fallen, down to 6.6 million in 1997.

There are a variety of problems brought about by this steady increase in fishing production. The growth in catches has severely depleted stocks, and what is worse, many of the stocks which remain have excessively young, immature, and small fish, which reduces their commercial value. Furthermore, gestation periods for fish are not respected, which harms their recuperative properties. Such a problem represents a classic situation of the tragedy of the commons, where individual interests take advantage of a public resource and result in its degradation.

In the region, there are inadequate processing facilities which results in excessive spoilage, and means that the artisanal fishing industry can only provide for the domestic instead of the international market. This host of problems is compounded by the effect of climate change, which threatens to undermine fish production in the region through the disruption of the ecosystem, and by industrial pollution, sewage, and waste which empties into the sea, which represent externalities of the economic system that would require public intervention to combat. Figures for this loss show up to 10% of loss of fishery output. Already, it has possibly affected fishing strategies as demonstrated by the switch from bluefish to pelagic sardinella after the former collapsed. There are complicated results which stem from this upon the general political economy as industrial fishing fleets are more flexible and better capable of reacting than artisanal fishing fleets, whose adaption is also hamstrung by high fuel costs. Artisanal fishing fleets are resultantly being squeezed, and what was once a part-time and even fulfilling job has now reached limiting factors, causing an exodus of youth into Europe.

There are also significant problems which have arisen as a result of ecological disruptions, as seen with the Diama dam on the Senegal river which destroyed the mullet fish’s habitation. In fact, up to 75% of the potential harvestable resources might have been destroyed in the Senegal Delta between the 1970s and 2000s, an effect mirrored across the region.


Fishing among the people of the region stems from an exceedingly wide variety of different cultural traditions, some focused on permanent and others on seasonal fishing. Looking at this from a purely secular perspective would miss much vital additional cultural elements at work, including a substantial religious component in some countries whereby fishermen rely on the advice and council of Marabouts (local religious leaders). Furthermore, it should be noted that these traditions do not necessarily exist in harmony. Conversely, there is competition and rivalry over fishing resources among the various regional ethnic groups. Some areas having faced problems between more efficient fishermen outperforming less effective local subsidence fishers such as the Diola people in Casamance, Senegal. Such tensions are particularly present when a strong tradition of migratory fishing sparks tension with sedentary fishermen. Perhaps, instead of simply dividing fishing into artisanal and industrial, it might be more profitably seen as sedentary, migratory, and industrial fishing as these groups have competing priorities and interests.

For many West African fishermen, in particular Senegalese, the struggle to provide a living for themselves is also dictated by notions of honor concerning providing for family. This presents additional problems in a strong culture where the gender expectation for a man is being the principal breadwinner for their dependents. Even further, the migration movement overseas can be seen as part of a social process and a rite of passage. Only sustainable and strong economic solvency at home can check such a pressure.

Foreign illegal Chinese fishing

Foreign illegal Chinese fishing

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Limitations for Potential Policies

What can be done to attempt to mitigate the effects of the negative factors which weigh heavily upon the well being of fishermen in West Africa as well as the ecological environment? Unfortunately, this situation would appear to be something of a zero-sum game, alleviating the strain on the environment requires a reduction in fish caught, which can only be drawn from the capacity of industrial and artisanal fishermen. The situation can hence be treated as one which is impossible to fully solve. The main hope is to mitigate the damages which will result from attempts to make balances in the fishing sector, and gloom shrouds any project foreseeing a full resolution to West Africa’s woes. Artisanal fishers would be plunged into poverty by reductions of catch (indeed, falls in fish catch have already occasioned increased malnutrition and poverty) and they enjoy little capability to adapt in regards to flexibility. While industrial fishermen, who don’t contribute nearly as much to local food security, would seem natural targets for a reduction in production, fishing licenses, payments, and exports constitute an extremely outsized proportion of the budget of local states, up to 30% in the case of Senegal. Furthermore, even if a local government attempted to restrict industrial production, illegal fishing is a constant and serious problem, and therefore regulations could be ineffective. Thus, a quandary—to alleviate the problems of poverty, provide for sustainable and economically productive local communities (thus preventing exoduses to Europe), secure local food security, provide government solvency, and enable economic development, fish catch must be increased, which is impossible as the region is already overfished. In a purely fishing perspective, solving all actors’ hopes is impossible. Alternate measures other than fishing must be examined.

Ecotourism is one simple solution in reconfiguring fishing, but unfortunately it presents fatal difficulties. While it might help in providing for a degree of economic revenue for the region, it does little to deal with the difficulties of furnishing food for the population of West Africa. Furthermore, it is in direct competition with fishing, since fishing requires onshore processing of fish products which is abhorrent to tourists. There have been regions where some progress has been made in the facilitation of ecotourism, such as in the Banc d’Arguin National Park in Mauritania (integral for the protection of European migratory bird populations). There, protection of non-motorized sailing methods by the Imraguen people ((with the assistance of the Fondation internationale du Banc d’Arguin (FIBA), the Union internationale pour la conservation de la nature (IUCN), and the Netherlands Development Assistance Agency (NEDA) in 1988)) has helped to bolster ecotourism. However, the park continues to be threatened by exploitation of its waters by illegal fishing. Because the Imraguen people are small in numbers and live in an extremely important and prestigious natural park, the same model cannot be implemented elsewhere.

Banc d'Arguing national park in Mauritania.

Banc d'Arguing national park in Mauritania.

Any policy implemented to attempt to solve difficulties associated with West African fisheries must accept three fundamental principles: One, the need for immense expenditures of resources to attempt to solve the intersectional nature of issues facing the region. Secondly, these resources will not be forthcoming. Finally, and therefore, any fix will only be a partial one.

The policies proposed here rely on two different mechanisms, internal government policies and NGOs or international assistance. It is hoped in regards to international assistance that European Union funding could be emphasized and used to help solve the migrant crisis issue which has become an extremely divisive issue within Europe.

Government Instituted Policies and Solutions

Here are some policies and solutions that can be put in place.

Improved Policing and Securitization of Fishing Resources

In order to ensure that West African fishing stocks are protected and preserved, it will be necessary to expand government security, oversight, and protection of fishing stocks, which can serve to attempt to reduce overuse of the common resource of the ocean’s bounty. Current legislation concerning fisheries is often violated, particularly by industrial fishing boats but also by artisanal boats. This would require a commensurate strengthening of coast guard and maritime patrol units, but the cost for it should be well worth it in light of the intense need and commercial benefits to internal producers. An expanded regional coast guard would also allow for better research concerning fishing inventories. Senegal already receives maritime surveillance equipment from Spain and France, so this expansion would not cost as much. Nevertheless, costs for this are extremely high, which leads to alternate proposals discussed later which attempt to respond to the problem of limited available resources which undercut such potential proposals for fishery management improvement. While dramatic changes in regards to foreign commercial access agreements would be the most effective, due to foreign pressure and the need for foreign exchange earnings, it is not suggested.

Related to these difficulties of protecting fisheries, improved fishery protection would in particular be well served by community protection efforts. It is important in such regards to realize that the fishing community is not homogenous, but instead includes foreign industrial, local industrial, migratory, and resident fishermen, who have competing interests and objectives. By granting appropriate rights and management to resident fishermen, they will have increased incentive to defend their own resources and manage their region, taking up the burden of patrolling and being more aware of problems stemming from the depletion of fish stocks. However, this policy depends on migrant fishermen not being unduly burdened by such a policy, as it is naturally discriminatory against them, or else risk betraying any semblance of equality and solidarity. As always, the real solution is diversification of the West African economy to prevent the pressures of excessive competition over inadequate resources from becoming explosive.

Fish Catch Modification and Infrastructure Development

The Guinea Bissau Ministry for Fisheries has recommended that drift nets be replaced by line fishing during barracuda gestation periods. This should be pursued and additional research done concerning what other fish would benefit from such protections, with management and regulation of certain fish stocks and breeding zones to ensure sufficient stock levels. These regulations would, of course, rely upon better policing and securitization of fisheries.

While there is little that can be done in general to improve fishing, since the problem is inherently over-fishing, there is some hope that more efficient processing and greater access to international markets can blunt the pain of reductions in catch. Improvements in fish processing facilities would fulfill both. These plants help to enable fish to be preserved and processed, so that it can be sold on the international market, instead of only being available for consumption by the local market, as well as cutting down on waste -- hence both achieving increased income and better usage of the available fish. There has been some construction of these by foreign nations and companies, which unfortunately has had a deleterious effect upon Senegalese fishers by bringing in additional foreign competition.

To achieve an amelioration in this sector, the government should attempt to lure foreign investment utilizing the same model as that of China -- joint Senegalese-foreign companies, to ensure appropriate local control and oversight over foreign capital, but still ensuring that business can be conducted easily. Tax breaks, eased regulations, and temporary subsidies could help ensure that more facilities of such a nature are constructed without excessive government expenditure, neither on a temporary or permanent nature. Where capital is not available for the expensive facilities, traditional preservation methods should be encouraged to attempt to cut down on waste.

An amelioration of agricultural production which traditionally served as employment for fishermen would help to relieve pressure.

An amelioration of agricultural production which traditionally served as employment for fishermen would help to relieve pressure.

NGO Instituted Policies and Solutions

Here are some plans that NGOs can implement.

Agricultural Diversification

Traditionally many of the fishers were part-time farmers and part-time fishermen. The recent move to being entirely fishing based, although with economic benefits—greater integration into a cash-based economy being a principal one—has also led to the need for constant year-round fishing which has depleted stocks. In particular, it leaves fishermen with no other option but to continue to fish during gestation periods. There a variety of different efforts which can and should be undertaken to promote a more diversified Senegalese economy, but the promotion of urban agriculture by NGOs operating in Senegal—already a present objective—could help to provide a low-capital enterprise for fishermen to both expand their earnings and enable them to allow time for fish gestation to occur and stocks to stabilize. The endeavors to be undertaken in this role would be access to loans, credit, agricultural supplies, and education. In addition, aquaculture development should be implemented in the government’s array of agricultural plans (of the five plans between 2001 and 2008, none included aquaculture).

Educational Outreach

Vital to helping fishermen deal with changing situations will be an educational outreach program addressing multiple topics to enable them to formulate policies in their own self- interests. Firstly, NGOs should help raise awareness about the environmental collapse facing fishermen, and promote species which are not currently threatened. Secondly, NGOs should spread information concerning global warming and climate change, and advise recommendations based on current research so that fishermen have an informed future expectation. This should be coordinated with religious authorities and community leaders to ensure a united effort.


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Fishing in West Africa faces an emerging crisis which has no easy nor singular solution. Indeed, the extent to which it can be saved is doubtful, and in the most pessimistic views, because of the array of problems it faces, means that at most only mitigating solutions can be adapted. To be able to save this threatened and vital economic sector as well as reconcile other woes plaguing the countries of West Africa, there needs to be a careful mix of policies implemented by state and NGO authorities in conjunction with local communities to enable them to weather the storm as best they can. Along the way, the situation will be imperfect. Fishermen will face great travails, the environment continue to be stressed, and pressure will build upon the regional political structure. But with appropriate wisdom and determination, the worst can be avoided and a vital element of stability, sustenance, and economic activity in West Africa can be preserved.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Ryan Thomas

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