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Hours before sunup every weekday, Adama and his five-man crew roll their pirogues out to sea. The fishermen set sail from Fann Hock, a bustling port on the Cap-Vert peninsula in Dakar, Senegal, on Africa’s westernmost tip, in search of sardinellas, thiof, mackerel, whatever they can find.  At this point Adama knows “beggars can’t be choosers.”

“We even take the fish we used to look down on,” he said.

Fish stocks off the coast of West Africa have been dwindling over the past decade, making small catches the norm for artisanal fishermen. West African waters have historically been among the most fertile in the world, however, in recent years the fish population has shrunk owing to climate change, and overfishing and illegal fishing mostly by large foreign industrial vessels bolstered by harmful fisheries subsidies.

On Mar. 2, the World Trade Organization will press on with negotiations to curb harmful subsidies valued at more than $20 billion which enable fishing vessels to travel farther, stay longer at sea and overfish. These commercial trawlers come from developed distant-water fishing nations such as China, Russia and countries in the European Union like Spain. They catch more fish in a day than a local Senegalese fisherman like Adama can catch in a year and send their fish to feed livestock in the U.S. and Europe. Some of the harmful fisheries subsidies they enjoy include fuel subsidies and vessel construction.

The talks have been on and off since 2001 and last December the WTO failed to meet a self-imposed deadline to agree on banning harmful fisheries subsidies. The intergovernmental body is under pressure from a looming United Nations deadline to meet the Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate these subsidies by June this year.

While talks and deliberations persist in Geneva, environmentalists worry about exacerbating human cost of these subsidies, particularly in West Africa where about 7 million people depend on local fisheries, including more than 600,000 jobs. In coastal communities in Dakar fishing is a multigenerational trade that not only employs both men, as fishermen, and women, as fish processors, but also provides a key source of animal protein. Fish is a staple in the Senegalese diet; the country’s national dish, thieboudienne, is rice with fish.

But different fish species off the Senegalese coast are already becoming depleted. The numbers of Thiof (white groupers) fish stocks, which were the most popular fish in Senegal forty years ago, have collapsed; another fish species, sardinella, replaced thiof. However, even the sardinella species are now overexploited, and with food scarcity comes inflation. A Newsy-Quartz Africa analysis found that sardinella now cost Senegalese consumers nearly three times what they did ten years ago.

“Sardinella is at the bottom of the food chain,” said Dyhia Belhabib, principal fisheries investigator at Ecotrust Canada. “If sardinella stocks are depleted, there won’t be much else to fish.”

“Losing those species would drive the entire ecosystem to collapse.” 

“Barcelona or Die”


Stripped of their livelihoods, local fishermen have set their sights on Europe as a way out. This trend has risen in the past two decades, and the desire to migrate, despite the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean, is captured in the Wolof slang, “Barça or Barsaax,” meaning “Barcelona or die.”

Adama has attempted the journey twice. The first time he made it to Spain before getting deported; the second time, he was deported from Morocco.

“I have friends in Spain, in the United States,” he said. “Every time they come back, even though I work harder than they do, I see that they can afford things we can’t afford. They can afford to buy a house; they can afford to build homes. They take their mother to Mecca.”

“It’s hard to believe them when they tell us not to migrate. You only think of going and seeing the reality with your own eyes.”

A man carries fish as he walks past fishing boats in Dakar, Senegal,
A man carries fish as he walks past fishing boats in Dakar, Senegal,
Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Senegal is among the top five origin countries of sub-Saharan migrants to the EU and a 2017 survey found that one in five adults in Senegal say they plan to move to another country in the next five years. Since 2014, 18,500 people have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

“It is a sign of frustration saying that why does our fish not need a visa and we do,” said Ecotrust’s Belhabib. “You’re taking our fish away from our waters; you’re taking our livelihood away from our waters. I am entitled to go to Europe because you took everything away from me.”

For the fishermen, finding alternative work in Senegal is difficult. More than 60 percent of the Senegalese population is under the age of 25; the coastal nation shares similar demographic traits with its West African neighbors: high unemployment and widespread poverty.

“If you cannot find jobs for your young people who have the license and diploma, how can you find jobs for those, the fishermen, who already have jobs and are losing it,” said Ibrahima Cisse, a senior ocean campaigner with Greenpeace Africa.

In recent years, the EU has intensified its efforts to crackdown on migration from Africa. It gave more than $1 billion in development aid to Niger to curb illegal migration. The irony of the EU’s suppression of African migration isn’t lost on fisheries subsidies experts, given the EU’s role in providing and advocating for harmful fisheries subsidies. Countries like Spain in particular are among the world’s top ten providers of harmful fisheries subsidies worth $683 million.

These subsidies fuel overfishing and decimate the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen in West Africa. The EU has also faced scrutiny for signing fishing agreements with West African nations, without input from the artisanal sector, that contribute to overfishing. And yet Spain struck a deal with Morocco to stem the flow of migrants to its shores.

“There’s some hypocrisy between the EU’s policy making and its rhetoric,” said Isabel Jarrett, Pew Charitable Trusts’ manager of the campaign to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies. Last year, the EU voted to reintroduce harmful fisheries subsidies that would grow its fishing fleet. The move, Jarrett said, undermined the EU’s position “as a WTO member and leader on the issue of reducing harmful subsidies.”

“The EU plays a major policing role towards everybody else except their fleet,” said Belhabib. “Forcing countries to follow your rules when your own fleet doesn’t is typically colonial to me.”

Researchers say the migration trend is justified and will only continue if developed countries continue to make foreign policy decisions that prioritize their interests at the expense of developing countries.

“As long as they continue to have the same orientation the world will face the same issues,” said Cisse. “We’ll have poverty, immigration, terrorism because it’s not fair just to come somewhere to take the food of poor people and to change it to do fishmeal to feed your animals.”

While China remains the world’s current top contributor of harmful subsidies and driver of overfishing, Cisse added that developed nations need to consider the realities of globalization as they confront these issues in forums such as the WTO talks.

“It’s like boomerang effect,” he said. “What you do today will come back to you early or later. Whatever big countries like the EU and the US decide to do they will see the impact early or later. Maybe the African countries will be the impacted first, but they will see the impact. Because the world is a small village now, what happens in Paris can happen in Dakar.” 

Beyond UN SDG 14.6

At the WTO talks, India is leading a proposal by developing and poor countries on “special differential treatment,” which argues the ban on subsidies to the fishing sector should exempt poor countries desperately dependent on fisheries to survive.

Eliminating subsidies “gradually, beginning with the industrial sector, might open up more fishing opportunities for the small-scale sector and increase their income so they will not even need subsidies anymore to operate,” said Belhabib.

If the June deadline passes without an agreement being reached, Jarrett explained, things are likely to fall apart as “there will be no real impetus to continue the work.”

“The SDGs then will already be weakened by the fact that governments couldn’t reach this SDG,” she said. If governments don’t deliver on this SDG it calls into question all the other 17 UN SDGs.

Nonetheless, for Adama and his peers, global discourses in board rooms in Geneva are the least of their concerns. With a family to fend for and children in school he is planning his third attempt at crossing the Mediterranean. “I have no hope,” he said. “I don’t think the situation with the fish will change at this time.”

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