Senegal’s fishermen pin hopes on new president to help them fill their nets

As foreign boats and illegal trawlers lower fish stocks, local fishers want Diomaye Faye’s government to bring change.

Fishermen in Senegal
Small-scale fisherman Adama Gueye at Ouakam beach where he works in Dakar, Senegal [Andrei Popoviciu/Al Jazeera]

Dakar, Senegal – For the traditional, small-scale fishermen of Ouakam Beach in Senegal’s capital Dakar, inequality is just a glance away.

Adama Gueye, a 58-year-old canoe captain, points towards the coast, where imposing villas of the upper-class, including politicians, sit tall and mighty a stone’s throw away from where he fishes.

“We can see the inequalities with our own eyes,” the fisherman told Al Jazeera.

For him, the injustice is compounded by decreasing fish stocks in the West African nation, where the centuries-old tradition of artisanal fishing is menaced by foreign industrial boats that export the fish away from Senegal.

But hope is on the horizon and it lies in his country’s new president: Bassirou Diomaye Faye.

Newly elected this week after years of tribulations and political crises – including a recent failed attempt by outgoing leader Macky Sall to delay the vote – Faye is Africa’s youngest leader at 44.

For many disenfranchised Senegalese fishermen who feel they have been wronged by their former leaders, he is also a symbol of change.

“[Faye] knows how much a kilogram of rice costs,” said Gueye, “he’s young, he was born in poverty, he didn’t go to private schools abroad – he’s one of us.”

Fishermen in Senegal
Traditional fishing canoes, called pirogues, are parked at the Ouakam beach [Andrei Popoviciu/Al Jazeera]

For the past years under President Sall, legal fishing by industrial foreign trawlers from China and Europe who had signed contracts with the government, decimated Senegal’s fish stocks, leaving artisanal fishers with empty nets.

This scarcity also led local fish prices to soar, according to fishermen – something that could significantly affect people’s nutritional intake, as Senegalese get about 40 percent of their animal protein from seafood, according to 2017 figures.

In 2018, the value of Senegal’s legal fish exports reached more than $490m, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, accounting for 10 percent of the country’s exports, behind only phosphates, oil and gold.

Senegal also loses $272m per year because of unauthorised and illegal industrial fishing by foreign boats, according to the Institute for Security Studies.

Foreign boats are restricted from fishing in certain areas and have strict indicators as to what type of catch they are allowed to fish. But often, they turn off their satellite transponders to avoid being tracked and use illegal nets.

The fishing industry contributes nearly 1.8 percent to Senegal’s GDP, providing more than 600,000 jobs, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation – a number that could be higher due to lack of registration.

Without fish, many livelihoods that depend directly and indirectly on fishing are lost, and a sizeable number of fishermen choose to immigrate to other countries or use their sailing skills and take dangerous boat journeys to Spain’s Canary Islands. In 2023, the UN refugee agency had registered more than 15,000 arrivals to Spain.

But now, the president-elect wants to change the fate of fishermen.

‘An agreement to steal our resources’

When Faye announced his electoral programme at the start of the month, he mentioned shifting the fishing zone exclusive for artisanal fishermen by 20km (12.4 miles) to protect it from foreign boats.

He also announced his intent to develop and implement a National Plan for the Immersion and Management of Artificial Reefs, an attempt to reconstruct marine habitats and ecosystems degraded by years of damaging industrial and artisanal fishing practices.

“We will apply without concession and in all its rigour the regulations on sea fishing to put an end to the political and complacent management of the sector,” local media quoted him as saying.

In advance of the vote, Faye also signed a charter for sustainable fishing, alongside other candidates. Proposed by Senegal’s National Coalition for Sustainable Fishing and supported by Greenpeace during this month’s election campaign, the charter included a commitment to oversee stock management at the sub-regional level, conduct audits on a fishing agreement with the European Union, and allocate a portion of revenue generated from oil and gas exploitation to the fishing sector.

Fishermen in Senegal
Fishing is a central part of the Senegalese economy, providing more than half a million jobs, much more according to some [Andrei Popoviciu/Al Jazeera]

Under Sall’s government, Senegal renewed a fishing agreement with the EU that had been present in one form or another since 1979 and has been renewed every five years. The deal gives European vessels access to fish in Senegalese waters and exports that catch back home in exchange for 800,000 euros ($863,104). The EU also provides Senegal with an additional 900,000 euros ($970,992) in investments in artisanal fishing and to improve stocktaking capabilities, enhancing research and data gathering in the fisheries sector and issuing health certifications for seafood products.

But the deal has been controversial. While most fishing agreements have a transparency clause regarding how much fish is exported by European vessels, the EU-Senegal deal does not. While the EU invests in the artisanal fishing industry and fishing governance, fishermen like Gueye have argued that if there are no fish to catch, there is no point to these investments.

Chinese and Turkish industrial boats have also been heavily criticised for their practices. For instance, it has not been uncommon for the government to give licences to boats with a history of illegal activities. Chinese and Spanish fishmeal companies based in Senegal, which turn the catch into fish feed to then be used to raise farm fish in China, have garnered criticism in recent years. In 2022, fishermen sued a Spanish fishmeal factory, accusing it of polluting drinking water.

As president, Sall focused on developing the country through investments and deals with foreign countries. He was harshly criticised by the opposition – led by Faye and his ally Ousmane Sonko – for deals that were not in the interest of the Senegalese but of companies and politicians who extract resources for exports with little trickling down to other citizens.

Faye believed it was one of the biggest grievances Senegalese had with the former government, so he ran on a campaign to revamp Senegal’s natural resource export deals with foreign countries and lend an ear to artisanal fishermen, who felt they had not been consulted before these contracts were signed by the previous government.

“The EU signed an agreement with Senegal to steal our resources, that’s why people are going to Europe,” said Gueye, referring to the thousands of local fishermen migrating to Europe on small boats.

“I hope Diomaye will put them in their place,” he said, adding that the new president also needs to crack down on illegal fishing, illegal nets and regulate how both industrial and artisanal fishermen operate.

“We have hope he will work for us.”

Helping Senegalese fishermen

Fishermen could see the impact themselves. Moussa Gueye (not related to Adama), a 30-year-old fisherman at Ouakam Beach born in a family with a tradition for fishing, told Al Jazeera that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when restrictions limited the presence of industrial boats, fish were plentiful.

Moustapha Senghor, coordinator of the local artisanal fisheries council of Mbour, a city on the southern coast of Senegal, told Al Jazeera that Sall had made efforts to address issues with fishing but they were “insufficient”.

“There is a lack of transparency in fisheries governance in Senegal,” said Senghor, who stressed the need for open data resources that show the vessels operating in Senegalese waters, where they can fish and where they can not, and how much fish is there.

He concurs with the other fishermen’s call for a revision of fishing agreements.

Fishing also converges with migration in Senegal. “Most of the fishermen are looking to the Canary Islands to reach Europe because they’re worried about the continuation of their fishing activities, especially in view of the cohabitation with oil exploitation,” Senghor said.

Fishermen in Senegal
Many fishermen have lost their livelihoods because of depleted fish stocks [Andrei Popoviciu/Al Jazeera]

In 2014, significant natural gas reserves were discovered offshore near the Senegalese city of St Louis. International players like British Petroleum (BP), which has the highest stake in the project, and US-based Kosmos Energy have invested in the project together with the Senegalese government. After the project was announced, European statesmen made official visits to court former President Sall for potential export deals.

The extraction of gas was expected to bring $1.5bn in exports by 2025 if it were to start when it was scheduled at the beginning of the year, but there have been several production delays. Offshore oil exploitation for exports is also expected to start production in the following years.

Meanwhile, fishermen in St Louis have complained of the effect the oil and gas rig has on their activities, including the cut off of fishing near the rig and the impact on what is one of the world’s biggest cold water reefs.

Bassirou Diarra, a fisheries and aquaculture engineer and researcher at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and campaigner at the Environmental Justice Foundation, told Al Jazeera there is a need to invest in scientific research as well.

A centre for oceanographic research would be able to monitor the stock of fish and report on how much can be fished sustainably, while also monitoring the pollution and impact of the rig on the biodiversity in the region. Diarra said Senegal’s current fishing agreements are remnants of his country’s colonial past.

“Macky Sall has implemented [fishing] policies that continued the system of exportation,” added Senghor. “[Faye] needs to help the Senegalese eat and produce their own fish and not export all of it abroad.”

Not just economic interests threaten the fishermen.

Back at Ouakam Beach, Gueye, the canoe captain, pointed out how the shore has been swallowed by the sea for the past 30 years, due to rising sea levels. He is hopeful Faye will also address this key issue and protect the fishermen from the effects of climate change.

As the beach is flooded by a bright sunset, Gueye makes his last caveat clear. Despite the faith he puts in the new president, recent political upheavals in the last years of Sall’s rule have made him more cynical.

“We’ve woken up as a society,” he said. “If [Faye] doesn’t do the job well, he won’t last more than one term.”

Source: Al Jazeera