Fished out in Senegal: A day aboard the Mansor Sakho
Seining for food on a West African pirogue.
Like most fishing pirogues in Senegal, the Mansor Sakho has a young crew. Everyone but the captain and his first mate are in their teens and early 20s. One deckhand is 13.
Like most children everywhere in the world, they are voracious.
At 7:30am the fishermen raise high the plastic bags with their mess and wade to the pirogue single file through the green surf of dawn. They shinny up the stern, scamper the mahogany gunwales to the net hold amidships, and settle to eat their breakfasts.
Home-made millet couscous mixed with powdered milk and sugar and sprinkled with water. Baguettes hollowed out and stuffed with murex or shrimp drowned in palm oil, with beans and spaghetti, with stewed onions, with fish and French fries and hardboiled eggs – the West African ancestors of New Orleans’ famous po’ boys. Baguettes split lengthwise and smeared with chocolate spread. Tiny plastic bags with runny peanut butter: chew off a corner and suck the contents right out. The food is gone before Captain Ndiaye has finished rigging a fuel line to the outboard motor.
I am in the net hold, too, sitting atop the folded fine-mesh, black-nylon mile of a purse seine sequined with fish scales from past catches. My breakfast is a boiled egg, a small apple, a piece of baguette. I don’t need to eat much: I will help to bail the boat, but mostly I’m here to watch and take notes. Late last summer I moved from the United States to Joal, Senegal’s largest artisanal fishing port, to research a book about life on the shifting tideline between plenty and nothing: the haul and cast of fishing at the time of the Anthropocene.
The Mansor Sakho – 21 metres, 20 crew, 60 horsepower, berthed to Joal – is one of the 21,000 traditional fishing pirogues that stitch the 720km of Senegal’s blue shoreline. Their catch is mostly sardines and mackerel. Some of it will end up on the fishermen’s own plates, in their po’ boys. Up to 40 percent, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, will be served abroad, including Europe and North America. At 8am, after Captain Ndiaye finally starts the motor, his pirogue speeds off to hunt for our dinners.
Global fish consumption has almost doubled since the 1960s, to an average of more than 19 kilos a year per person in 2012, and continues to grow. Most of our seafood comes from the overexploited waters of the Global South, including West Africa’s. Off the coast of Senegal, in waters depleted by overfishing and climate change, local artisanal fishermen – like the crew aboard the Mansor Sakho – and a modern foreign fleet plunder what’s left to indulge our gluttony.
I think: In the ocean, we are all children. We crawled out of its Hadean waters only 400 million years ago. We have barely explored its ancient depths; we have never weaned ourselves off its unfathomable riches – and we are insatiable.
Senegal lies at the westernmost tip of the Sahel, a savannah belt that girdles northern Africa at roughly the 13th parallel, between the Sahara desert and the tropics. In the West, the Sahel is best known from grotesque images of perpetual mass hunger: bloated-bellied children, skeletal cattle scooped into mass graves. In the slow wound of Somalia, in the famished Kenyan north, in the wastes of the Malian bush, chronic malnutrition is a constant backdrop, a relentless sapping away of life. But here, on Senegal’s coast, it’s different. Here, everyone has something to eat. Spent as it is, the sea still offers up leftovers, by-catch, handouts, quick jobs, and as long as you are fit enough to bail you can always go on to a pirogue for an equal part of the day’s catch.
That is how the sea hooks you: it always delivers, at least a little bit, at least for now. Its tug is relentless, like its tide. Year after year, despite the dwindling catch, more pirogues flag to Senegal’s harbours. Year after year, Captain Ndiaye pulls another son out of primary school to turn him into a fisherman so that we can eat more fish.
The captain’s oldest sons, Gorgui and Pape, are now 15 and 14. They are lean, muscular, handsome. They are proud of their profession. They like the jingle of coins in their pockets after a good day at sea, even if such days are rare. They can buy their own peanuts and soda and coffee spiced with ginger and cloves, and they can buy po’ boys for their next sail.
Gorgui shouts at me over the drone of the motor.
“I’ve heard the older men say that the sea is empty. But to my mind, it’s a question of luck.” He shows off a deep scar between his toes, from a mackerel gill laceration three weeks earlier. His friends, Adama Gueye and Adama Diop, both 15, look at this war wound with awe.
Suddenly Gorgui sits up on the net, points at the endless sea around us. “Look! Low tide! Fish is coming.”
I lean over the port gunwale and look at the water. It is all surface – first turquoise, then deep blue, then shattered black diamonds. It reflects everything and gives away nothing. Suddenly the sun slants just so and in the boat’s shadow the seabed shines up from 10 fathoms below, clear and pale, speckled with colonies of mussels and clams and rocks, absolutely fishless.
Then the boat turns, the ocean surface curtains, and the vision is gone.
‘Haul like a madman’
An hour offshore, Joal’s low skyline of baobab and eucalyptus trees and doum palms sinks behind the horizon line. Then its hazy cumulus vanishes, too.
The pirogue glides away from Africa at full throttle upon the surface that now is rippled, metallic, with 2m swells. The crewmen – the boys – keep an eye on the ripples. An irregularity in the pattern, a stir in the chop, a boil of bubbles, will signal a school of fish. They strain their eyes port and starboard, far and close, hoping for the surface to break.
Then, at noon, an ovoid shimmering: a school! A school! The fishermen cast the net overboard to port and the pirogue circles anticlockwise until the yellow Styrofoam floats of the seine line up in a wide hoop. Then they grab the cinch line that dangles from the net on rusted iron rings and begin to haul.
On a purse seine, the cinch line tightens the net’s bottom, trapping the catch inside. Hauling this line – against the pull of the sea, the weight of the net, the drag of the current, the line’s own weight – is so hard that the boys fall backwards after each pull. They ululate and knock into one another and swear. To keep the rhythm they sing rounds. “Haul like a madman – Yeah – Work like a donkey – Yeah – Work like a lion – Hey — Work, mother****** – Haul it, haul it, haul it, yeah.” These are nonsense shanties, made up on the spot. They are Paleolithic, as old as fishing.
The boys’ hands are more calloused then the soles of my feet. I bail seawater mixed with their sweat.
A sacrifice to the sea
When you lift a full seine of sardines out of the water, the fish thrash so hard that they spray the entire pirogue with water and seaweed and scales. When you tip the seine into a pirogue, the fish sluice down into the holds with a deafening rustle like an enormous flock of birds taking wing. Passenger pigeons must have sounded like this as they passed over the American Midwest, before man shot them all out of the sky. In the boat the fish continue to thrash for minutes. In the wake, broken fish scales swirl in pearly plumes, like nail polish, and the bail is dark with fish blood.
Captain Ndiaye, a lean quiet man in his mid-40s, says that 20 years ago he would sail for less than an hour before his crew would spot a school. They would cast once and haul a full boat of fish – a tonne, sometimes more – and return to port by noon, in time for the traditional lunch of thiebou jen, rice with fish sauce. Those were the days. I have heard similar stories from other fishermen in Senegal, in North America, in the Indian Ocean – but also from scholars and organisations that study the fisheries’ decline. They are not fish stories. Joal’s harbourmaster tells me the local catch is down 75 percent from a decade ago, when the harbour began to keep track.
Artisanal fishing is Senegal’s main resource and the main earner of foreign exchange. In Joal it is the source of life. Mothers dropping off children at daycare centres lament the shortage of fish. Boat-builders receive no new commissions, tailors idle next to their treadle sewing machines, couscous saleswomen feed fewer customers.
Not long before my sail aboard the Mansor Sakho, the town’s elders offered a sacrifice to the sea, asking it for fish. Under the dual supervision of the harbourmaster and a local sorcerer, two dozen women cooked in industrial-sized vats 50kg of millet porridge with sweet peanut sauce and 50kg of rice. They stewed 50kg of onions into a relish and deep-fried several hundred bonga shad to a lacy crisp. Two hundred men intoned the Quran and knelt in a communal prayer under the tin roof of the harbour, and dispatched boys and women to tilt huge platters of food into the lime green surf slimy with harbour rot and effluent. The sorcerer emptied into the sea a bottle of red wine. I watched the ceremony and thought: If I were the sea I’d barf up some sardines.
But the sea is a picky eater. It chooses its sacrifice. Four days later it cast ashore a dead man so deformed that the only certain thing about him was that he had been a fisherman, because of the rubberised overalls and slicker still on the corpse. That same night, a young fisherman whose mother lives three blocks away from my house drowned trying to fetch an unmoored pirogue, and his body disappeared at sea.
The fatalism of fishermen is legendary and universal. “What the sea wants, the sea will have,” English fisherfolk say. And, of course, children are fearless of death. After the funerals – one of a nameless body, the other of a bodiless name – the Mansor Sakho sailed to her usual fishing grounds 48km offshore without a single life jacket aboard, and with barely enough drinking water to last past lunchtime. She always goes to sea this way.
Fishing forbidden waters
By the time the boys finally gather the cinch line and begin to haul the net itself it is 12:30pm. A sole sardine, no larger than a palm, floats white belly-up to the surface first. When the net emerges in full it holds no sardines. A few halfbeaks are trapped in the mesh. Several horned murex shells, pink like tongue. The fish in the school were so small that they twisted right through the seine’s fine mesh. The boys, exhausted, fall back down on the net. They are hungry again. Time for tabnabs. They mix the remaining drinking water with the couscous they had stashed away in the stern. Someone passes me a bite. The millet smells sour. It tastes gritty, like wet cement.
Foreign fishing trawlers that vacuum the waters of West Africa – often with no licence and almost always with impunity – are usually blamed for abusing the region’s fish stocks. A trawler can catch in a day what a pirogue won’t catch in a week. But it’s a matter of ability, not of conscience. At 5pm, having cast twice more and hauled nothing, the desperate Mansor Sakho pivots and casts her net two miles off Joal’s coast, in a marine-protected area designated to replenish the sea, where all fishing is forbidden.
“Make it fast, boys, we’re not supposed to be here,” the captain tells the crew. In the west, the autumn sun falls towards a white sea.
They haul an empty net.
“If we see a sea turtle we will catch it and sell it,” someone says.
“No, man. It’s illegal to catch sea turtles.”
On the way to the mooring the worn-out boys lounge on top of the wet seine and prepare to eat again. They douse two handfuls of charcoal in motor fuel and set them aflame in a cast-iron brazier, and balance the spiny murex shells on top. After a while they smash the shells against the gunwales. They thumb out the rubbery flesh, lean overboard to rinse it in seawater. They hand me one. The mollusk is about the size of my thumb, hot, tubular, slightly burned on one side. It is sweet, salty, smoky – it is everything at once, like the mother sea.
And I want more.
Anna Badkhen is the author of five books of non-fiction, including Walking with Abel. She is at work on her next book, Fisherman’s Blues.