Magazine article Geographical

Caught in the Middle: West African Fishermen Are Being Denied the Right to Fish Their Local Shares for Fear of Depleting Stocks. Yet Just beyond the Protected Areas, European Trawlers Are Plundering Tonnes of Fish Every Night. (Geopolitics)

Magazine article Geographical

Caught in the Middle: West African Fishermen Are Being Denied the Right to Fish Their Local Shares for Fear of Depleting Stocks. Yet Just beyond the Protected Areas, European Trawlers Are Plundering Tonnes of Fish Every Night. (Geopolitics)

Article excerpt

LAMIN WAS A POACHER, 19 years old, and a long way from home. I met him in the muddy harbour of a tiny fishing village in Maurttania's only national park, the Banc d'Arguin. He had no money, little food and the only bed he could call his own was 1,000 kilometres and two countries away at his mother's house in The Gambia. His boat had been impounded here for two weeks after being caught fishing in the park's protected waters. His lodging, until the owner of the boat showed up to pay the fine, was a tiny asbestos-roofed hut shared with 20 other captive poachers in the village of Agadir.

He wanted to come to Britain. Well, wouldn't you? He and his fellow crewmen, two Senegalese and a Mauritanian, go to sea for a week at a time in their open eight-metre boat, and get paid around 30 [pounds sterling]. Why come all this way? "I need money for my mother, who is ill," he explained. "The fishing is better here than at home." Especially, he said, in the forbidden waters of the park. Dozens of boats lay their nets in the Banc d'Arguin each night, when the patrol boats have little chance of catching them, and scarper before dawn. Two weeks before, Lamin and his mates had lost their bearings. "We got arrested in the morning at nine o'clock. We thought we were out of the park, but we weren't."

Lamin's is an everyday story of the fishing folk of West Africa. These waters are one of the last great fishing grounds on Earth, badly diminished but still able to support thousands of small boats like Lamin's, called pirogues. They, like the region's fish, gravitate to the waters in and around the Banc d'Arguin, a huge area of shallows half the size of Wales, where cold, nutrient-rich watch rise to the ocean's surface. The rush of nutrients and the shallow waters warmed by the sun create a marine cornucopia for fish, birds and much else.

"The Banc is probably unique. Certainly there is no other place like it in Africa," says Jean Worms, a French marine biologist who is the park's chief scientist. It is the region's most important fish spawning and nursery ground. Shark and skate, mullet and ray fish, sardinelle and octopus, sole and courbine, all breed, grow and get scooped from the water here.

"These waters are important for the whole of West Africa. They must remain closed to guarantee fish stocks along the coast," says Antonio Araujo, the Portuguese conservation officer of the park. But the temptation to break the rules is strong. "You can catch in a night on the Banc what it takes two weeks to get almost anywhere else on the coast," he admits. For park staff, Lamin and his fellow poachers are the enemy. And that is how the WWF saw it earlier this year, when the international organisation awarded the Mauritanian government its top prize -- a `gift to the Earth' -- for plans to raise fines for poaching twenty-fold to 350 [pounds sterling] per person.

But the reality is a good deal more complicated. For these itinerant fishers are in many ways the fall-guys in a complex battle for control of the region's richest single natural resource: its fish. They find themselves squeezed between the forces of conservation, represented by the park, and the forces of international capitalism -- just visible on the horizon offshore. For even as they run the gauntlet for their nightly assaults on the region's premier fish nursery, fishers such as Lamin can see in the distance the lights of hundreds of huge trawlers that have travelled here from all over the world. While not allowed in the park, the trawlers are quite legally plundering the same migrating fish stocks as they swim in and out of the park and up and down the coast from Guinea-Bissau to Morocco. "It's like a town out there," says Araujo, as we count 40 blips on the Mauritanian fishery patrol's radar screen, each representing a trawler up to 140 metres long `fishing the line' at the edge of the park. "They are taking everything," he says. "The real conflict for resources is not between the park and the pirogues, it is between the industrial trawlers and the rest. …

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