Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Rough Seas

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Rough Seas

Article excerpt

Senegal's Threatened Fisheries

IN THE LATE AFTERNOON, the Soumbedioune Market in Dakar is mostly empty - populated by women rolling peanuts into bags as snacks, a few people brewing up vats of Cafe Touba (a spiced and sugary coffee), and others wiping down their cleaning stations in anticipation of the evening ahead. But when the sun starts to set on the Atlantic Ocean, the market comes alive. The boats pull in, bringing loads of fish in shades of orange, gray, and pink. There's langouste and mackerel, mussels and barracuda. Massive groupers, bigger than small children, lie on concrete counters, and cases of red mullet and a spread of long, fat eels wait on the sand. Vendors position their products, calling out prices as buyers browse.

The diversity springs from Senegal's place in the West African Ecoregion, one of the richest and most diverse fishing grounds in the world. The upwelling of cold water along the coast brings nutrients from the depths of the ocean to feed over a thousand of species of fish. Such abundance must have attracted early peoples to the coast, says Papa Gora Ndiaye, a Dakar-based economist and director of the environmental organization ENDA-REPAO. "They had only to take a tree," he says, "cut it and put it into the ocean to take some fish."

By the middle ofthe twentieth century, people in the government started to realize that the biodiversity of their waters was an asset that could be harnessed, caught, frozen, and airlifted to places in Europe or America or Asia where buyers would pay a lot of money to get it. Mamadou Goudiaby, a researcher from the Office of Maritime Fishing, says that the government hoped to develop the local economy by expanding the fishery and making small-scale fishermen more efficient. "At the beginning, we said the fishery resources were not sufficiently exploited," said Goudiaby. "And the government put programs into place to be able to exploit the fishery."

In the 1970s and 1980s, the government helped small fishermen buy motors so they could go farther out into the ocean. At the same time, the region suffered from a major drought that drove farmers to the coasts, where they thought they could find sure survival and a new career in the sea. And individual fishermen began to prosper. In a small village called Nianing, Mansour Thiaow says that they learned to fish for those foreign markets.

Together Mansour Thiaow and his brothers own six pirogues, small, wooden fishing boats, painted bright blue inside and festooned with the red, yellow, and green Senegalese flags on the outside. The Thiaows fish for everything and anything: giant squid for local hotels, huge mollusks prized as aphrodisiacs by buyers in Japan, and lots and lots of octopus. That's one of the big money makers.

He says that the fishermen only recently learned how profitable octopus could be. "Gradually, people came and said, 'Wait, this octopus is commercial.' So we had to create techniques to attract the octopus and to send it to the European, Asian, or American markets."

Thiaow says that his family has done well. "Before, there wasn't any electricity at our house. For us, it was candles. Now there is electricity," he says. "There wasn't water. We went over there," he says gesturing to the ocean. "Now there is a tap at the house. There is a telephone. There are plenty of little things."

Nianing is south of Dakar in an area they call the Petit Côte - the Little Coast. It's a region in transition, where old fishermen in knit caps and sweaters share the beaches with bikini-clad sunbathers, where shanties sit next to gated resorts. The main activity of the people here, though, is still fishing.

The governmental strategy to expand the fishery included opening it up to outsiders. Starting in 1979, Senegal signed agreements that, for a fee, allowed foreign fleets to fish Senegalese waters. This expansion meant a rapid and exponential increase in how much fish trawlers and pirogues were taking out of Senegal's waters. …

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