Fishermen who "walk on water" burn their nets

Posted on May, 05 2004

The white fishing nets were piled onto pickup trucks and driven into Mauritania's windswept dunes. There, they were flung into a large hole, doused with petrol, and set ablaze.
The white fishing nets were piled onto pickup trucks and driven into Mauritania's windswept dunes. There, they were flung into a large hole, doused with petrol, and set ablaze.

The Mauritanian fishermen known as the "Imraguen" — which means people who fish while walking on the sea — watched with their families as thick black smoke poured from the burning nets that once provided them with a lucrative livelihood.

The burning of the nets this year was part of a landmark agreement to stop the Imraguen fishing shark and ray from Africa's largest marine park along the barren coast of this impoverished West African nation.

The fishermen agreed voluntarily to hand over their nets in return for cash to preserve the shark and ray species in the Banc d'Arguin National Park, a treasure trove of marine life which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1989.

"What a relief! The fact that Imraguen gave up fishing sharks and rays is extraordinary. This is a very strong move in the right direction," said park keeper Ely Ould Samba.

The park covers 12,000km2 (4,500 square miles) and boasts one of the world's largest concentrations of fish, crustaceans, and molluscs, as well as dolphins, turtles, sharks, and a dozen species of rays.

For years, the Imraguen fished mullet and shade-fish in the shallow waters of the park, where golden sand dunes slope down to coastal mudflats. Only the Imraguen are authorized to fish in Banc d'Arguin — some use wooden sailboats, others simply wade into the shallows and fling their nets.

But after coming into contact with fishermen from neighbouring Senegal beyond the park's boundaries, the Imraguen decided to try their hand at catching shark and ray for the lucrative Asian market of the late 1980s and 1990s.

"What we used to do was enough to sustain our families. With just three months of work we could have enough for the whole year," said Mohamed Ould Sidy, a traditional Imraguen chief who speaks for the 1,500 fishermen in the park.

Culinary delicacies
Soon the hammerhead sharks, tiger sharks, and different species of rays were being overfished — prompting action from environmentalists who sought to persuade the fishermen to abandon their newfound habits.

Shark fins are a prized culinary delicacy in Asia. A kilo can fetch US$500 and is believed to give strength and vigour to men. Shark fin soup is widely served at Chinese weddings as a symbol of generosity and wealth.

Conservationists say 100 million sharks are caught each year just for their fins and hunting has depleted some shark populations by as much as 90 per cent.

Talks between the Imraguen and park's management started four years ago and in January some 100km (60 miles) of shark nets were burnt not far from R'gueiba village, some 200km (125 miles) north of the capital Nouakchott.

The scheme, under which the fishermen get one euro per metre of net handed over, is backed by the French-based International Foundation for the Banc d'Arguin (FIBA) and WWF.

"We witnessed an extraordinary decision which was not taken by a state or an institution but by the Imraguen community in order to ease overfishing on sharks and rays and turn their fishing activities towards other species," said Mathieu Ducrocq, FIBA's technical adviser on fisheries.

Conservation group WWF described the agreement as "a ray of hope for threatened marine species". The group has urged other fisheries stakeholders in the region to seek similar solutions to problems of overfishing.

But traditional chief Sidy admits the fishermen are concerned about their future. They recognise the environmental argument, but are worried about the economics and want the outside world to help them pay the price of preservation.

"We ask our foreign partners to help us face this situation because the compensation package for our fishing nets is far from being enough," he said.

Financial sacrifice
The fishermen now must resort to fishing mullet and shade-fish from the park's waters but fear a financial hit.

"In just one day, I used to capture 400 species of ray with my nets which are going to be banned from now on," said Soueilim Ould Bilal, 71, his voice heavy with nostalgia.

"What I will receive (as compensation) I will get only once. I used to get money every day from this fishing."

Traditional chief Sidy also says the compensation won't benefit everyone. Some Imraguen hire their nets out to fishermen who are paid a wage when they bring in the catch. These workers will receive nothing under the scheme.

"One can only find shade-fish and mullet during three months in a year and you can't find those species in all the park's waters," grumbles Abdallahi Ould Saghot, 38.

But despite these challenges, the Imraguen are expected to abide by the agreement — not least because of their pride as "defenders" of the park. "If an Amrig (member of Imraguen tribe) gives you his word he will stick to it," Ould Saghot said.

* Diadie Ba is a journalist working for Reuters.

Reproduced with permission from Reuters.  © 2004 Reuters Limited
An Imraguen fishermen watches as nets used to catch sharks and rays are burnt.
Imraguen fishermen with yellow mullet catch, Banc d'Arguin National Park, Mauritania.
© WWF / Mark Edwards
White spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) breeding colony, Banc d'Arguin National Park, Mauritania.
© WWF / John E. Newby