Friday, July 06, 2018

West Africa's Fish Famine

The fish market in Mbour, on Senegal's Atlantic coast, is one of West Africa's busiest. The catch of the day can be bought straight off the colorful wooden canoes all year round. Jen, the Wolof word for fish, is a dietary staple and a prized resource in Senegal. It is the main ingredient in thieboudienne, a very popular dish made of fish, rice and vegetables. An estimated 20 percent of the country's workforce — some 600,000 people — are employed in the fisheries sector.  
"When the ships go out to sea together, there are not enough fish and they return without any catch. People are thinking there are no more fish left," said Gaoussou Gueye, a veteran fishmonger. "If we still had enough fish in Senegal, we would not to have to look for licenses in other countries to fish."
The region's fish stocks have been depleted over many years by the industrial trawlers combing its oceans for species such as tuna, destined for European and Asian markets. Lately, industrial-scale aquaculture in Asia especially is also fueling demand for West Africa's fish stocks and making a bad situation worse. Fish farming requires powdered fish meal. In recent years, a dozen fish meal factories have been built along the Senegalese coast. In neighboring Mauritania, 30 such factories opened their doors in the past 15 years. Many are Chinese-owned. Sardinella, a traditional staple caught off West Africa, are turned into fish meal and animal feed at these factories. 
"The problem with fishmeal is that for one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fishmeal you are using at least five to 10 kilograms of fish. So you are also destroying the value of fresh fish for the population," Francisco Mari, an expert on fishing at the relief and development agency Bread for the World, told DW. "The production of fishmeal is irresponsible from a nutrition standpoint," Mari said.
The foreign production of the fish feed is driving up the price of sardinella on the local market. About 20 percent of Senegalese fishers catch only sardinella. For them, the fishmeal plants are more attractive as customers than locals: they buy in bulk and pay in cash. Workers in the fisheries sector say they fear losing their jobs as they face increasing competition over the region's staple diet.
Linnea Engstrom, the deputy chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Fisheries, visited the region recently. She explains that the women who prepare, smoke and then sell the fish are especially affected by the rising prices.
"These women are in a very vulnerable situation; they have to compete with large international companies to buy fish from the fishermen," Engstrom told DW.  "The prices of the fish have gone up immensely and they can no longer afford the resource they need to sustain their business and to feed the population."
In Mauritania, the strain on the environment from fishmeal production has been immense. Toxic waste from the factories is dumped into the sea and thick smoke pollutes the air.
Moctar Ame is an ear, nose and throat specialist in Nouadhibou, a coastal city where more than 20 of Mauritania's fishmeal factories are located. Ame said he has seen public health in the region deteriorate since the factories were opened. He estimates that 20 percent of his patients suffer from diseases directly related to the pollution.
"There are many diseases that are directly related to the pollution of these factories. They release toxic air particles. When these particles enter the body, they cause allergies, chronic bronchitis and skin rashes. We cough a lot and have infected throats because of these particles," Ame explained.

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