When we met Baba Teuw in February, it had been six months since he had gone fishing. Like all other fishermen in his neighborhood, Guet Ndar, he was itching to go. But he faced an impossible quandary: stick to Senegalese waters and risk coming back empty-handed or steal a few miles over the border into neighboring Mauritania and risk getting shot.
Teuw has short-cropped hair, a neatly trimmed beard and, when not decked out in his fishing gear, he wears trendily frayed jeans, crisp jackets and shades. But at 27, he has the distant look of an old soul. He’s been fishing since he was 14.
“My father is a fisherman. My grandfather was one, too. Everyone. We’re all fishermen,” he said.
On a windy, February evening, he made us ataya tea: an almost too-sweet mixture of mint herbs and crushed mint candy. We sat in his sparsely decorated bedroom. It consisted only of a mattress covered by a starched white sheet, a few books including a Quran piled at its feet and a stereo playing Senegal’s prince of pop, Wally Seck.
“My father is a fisherman. My grandfather was one, too. Everyone. We’re all fishermen.” — Baba Teuw, 27, fisherman
Teuw flicked through his phone and pulled up an Instagram video from a year ago. It was dated March 18, 2017. The shaky image showed a dozen fishermen, including Teuw, lined up along the edge of a fishing boat. They hoisted a 25-meter net brimming with a massive catch of flapping, translucent fish. The men’s lean muscles strained against the weight.
That was in a different country, he told us. “Mauritania.” There are no more fish in Senegal, he said.
Senegal is a dramatic example of a trend playing out across the world, in which 90 percent of fisheries are fully fished or facing collapse, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The crisis has been exacerbated by European and Asian fleets prowling the seas off West Africa.
The crisis is now forcing West African countries along the Atlantic coast to fight one another over the fish that remain.
Decades of overfishing have crippled once-prodigious artisanal fishing industries, which nations like Senegal have long relied on to nourish their populations. Worse yet, this is happening at a time when climate change is reducing the amount of food grown on land.
The consequences include malnutrition across the region — from coastal Senegal all the way to Burkina Faso in Africa’s interior. But its impacts are not limited to this part of the world. Many of those who lack food here are compelled to risk their lives migrating to Europe, a continent where anti-migrant sentiment is on the rise.
A few days after Teuw showed us his video, he got a call. A friend of his was going to fish and suggested he get on board. A lot was riding on this. If they got a good haul, Teuw would not only have some money in his pocket. He might even have enough to travel the 150 miles south to Mbour, where his young son lives with relatives. He had a few hours before the boat set out at 5 p.m. It would be a long night.
If Guet Ndar were a high school, its fishermen would be the football team. They’re unmistakable in their matching, forest-green waterproof gear, swaggering down the length of a beach shoulder to shoulder, joking loudly among themselves like star quarterbacks breezing down a hallway in letterman jackets. They are the descendants of the first Senegalese fishermen — the pride of the community, admired for their perilous work at sea and a headache to the local administration for their refusal to follow orders.
Guet Ndar is a thin peninsula located between the Atlantic and the mainland of Saint-Louis, the former French West African colonial capital. Once a stopover for trans-Saharan airmail fliers on their way to South America (“The Little Prince” author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry used to visit), today, the city is a stretch of dusty terraces in elegant decay. It was declared a UNESCO site in 2000.
But if Saint-Louis oozes colonial romanticism — capitalized on by a few hotels and a burgeoning tourist economy — crossing the bridge to nearby Guet Ndar shocks you into a chaotic whirl largely untouched by imperial planners.
A dirt road runs through the peninsula north to south. It is bordered by one-story cement structures from which a never-ending stream of children emerge and then disappear, chasing soccer balls, goats and the occasional tourist. For the fishermen, having many children can ensure early retirement. Sturdy men in their 40s mill about in traditional boubou dresses, exchanging gossip and discussing the capricious weather, having passed the baton to their teenage sons.
But these days, the gangly teens — who’ve swapped their fathers’ traditional garb for Barça or Real Madrid jerseys — often hang around, too. They’re anxiously waiting for a chance to get out to sea.
By the Saint-Louis mainland, there is a vast fleet of pirogues: brightly painted, open-topped wooden boats driven by outboard engines. The vessels stretch up to 23 meters long. They face the Thiaka Ndiaye cemetery where generations of fishermen have been laid to rest.
Fishing is a dangerous job, and it’s gotten more so recently: 181 Senegalese fishermen, most from Saint-Louis, died at sea last year. That was double the number from a few years ago, according to officials who cite climate change and crews traveling vast distances to find fish as some of the causes. (By comparison, Alaska tends to see roughly 12 fishing deaths annually while commercial fishing ships in the UK recorded just nine fatalities in 2016.)
When we visited in February, the mood was somber. Bad weather and a recent flare in tensions with Mauritania — a nation to the north — had hit an already struggling industry. This forced some in the community to worry about the future. “In 10 years, this will no longer be a fishing community,” Assane Gueye, 68, a commanding retired fisherman told us.
We asked what would happen if there were no more fish. Gueye shrugged and answered: “We die.”
When Teuw was a child, the Saint-Louis fleet was one cog in a well-oiled machine that successfully employed hundreds of thousands of Senegalese. It was capable of feeding families far into the country’s arid interior. But by the time Teuw started fishing a little more than a decade ago, the system had begun to fray.
“In 10 years, this will no longer be a fishing community.” —Assane Gueye, 68, commanding retired fisherman
To feed growing appetites for seafood in Europe and Asia, foreign trawlers have scoured the seas over the last three decades. They often drag nets across the ocean floor and damage once-plentiful breeding grounds.
In a desperate attempt to compete, scrappy Senegalese fleets have responded by ramping up production, often employing illicit means such as superfine, nonbiodegradable nylon nets that also trap everything in their path. The effect: staple Senegalese fish, relied upon to feed the nation, began disappearing from the coastal waters.
This has put many fishermen out of work and worsened a severe food crisis. But in recent years, as fish have grown scarce, the fishermen have discovered that their boating skills are in demand by fellow Senegalese hoping to flee to the sea toward Europe.
Around the time Teuw was joining the pirogues, tens of thousands of Senegalese, many of them not much older than he was, began attempting a perilous, 800-mile northward journey on the same ocean. Their destination: Spain’s Canary Islands, a speck of European soil. The journey could take up to 15 days and, at the height of the crisis in 2006, roughly 6,000 died attempting to reach Spanish soil via that route.
Aghast at the deaths, Senegal was desperate to revive its fisheries. Officials believed that, if they could chase European trawlers out of their waters, fish would come back, local fishermen could return to their honorable trade and the deadly voyages would cease.
So, in 2006, Senegal scrapped deals allowing EU fleets into its waters. But former Fishing Minister Haidar al-Ali said this hardly made a dent. Instead, European companies found a loophole: partnering with Senegalese businesses so they could continue exporting their catch to more affluent countries.
“None of the boats went back to Europe,” he said.
But there are fears that, in the future, the fish supply will dry up for foreign- and local-owned boats alike. For Ibrahima Cissé, the head of Greenpeace in Senegal, the current system throughout the region — where each country makes its own bilateral deals with foreign fleets — means that an unsustainable amount of fish is being caught.
That’s compounded by illegal and unregulated fishing, which costs West Africa $2.3 billion annually, according to a study in the journal, Frontiers in Marine Science. Cissé said that without a regional approach to sustainability, the seas of West Africa will be stripped bare.
“If they don’t find a solution, there will be a lot of problems,” he said. “The impact is illegal immigration to Europe, joblessness and food security problems impacting the whole region.” …. Continue Reading