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Local fisheries - a US$400 million annual business

Fisheries in the West African Marine Ecoregion (WAMER) generate some US$400 million annually, making them the single most important source of foreign exchange in the region and a key source of revenue for economic and social development.

A critical local industry
Nearly 8 million people live along the WAMER coast and in Senegal alone, a country of 12 million, the jobs of over 600,000 men and women depend directly on fishing and fisheries related industries.

The profile of the WAMER nations’ fishing fleets differs dramatically. In Mauritania, for example, where landings top 600,000 tonnes annually, foreign industrial fishing fleets catch about 80% of the fish while the smaller scale, artisanal sector catches around 20%.

The opposite holds true in Senegal, where the artisanal fishers land 80% of that country’s yearly 400,000 tonne catch.

In addition to domestic industrial and artisanal fishing fleets, many foreign powers - in particular the EU, Japan, and China - have negotiated important fisheries agreements to allow their boats access to waters of WAMER countries.

Threats to resources endanger fragile economies
Although access agreements with foreign countries bring much needed income, they also put unsustainable pressures on limited fish stocks, leading to conflicts between local and foreign fleets.

This is further exacerbated by recent improvements in fishing gear that increase fishing efficiency, but also increase fishing pressures.
 A large Spnaish trawler floats in stark contrast to the local fishermen's boat, Senegal. © WWF / Jo Benn

The result is a vicious cycle. More pressure means fewer fish, which in turn drives the need to develop ever-more effective gear, which further threatens stocks.

Hard cash vs. sustainable needs
Unfortunately, given the serious economic constraints facing the developing countries of the ecoregion and a lack of alternatives, many countries find themselves caught between the development needs of their people and the need to ensure the integrity of their natural resources.

Destructive fishing methods
With more and more boats searching for fewer and fewer fish, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of destructive, habitat-destroying fishing techniques like dynamite, bottom trawling, and beach seining.

The increased fishing has also led to increased capture of endangered marine turtles, juvenile fish, and a massive expansion of the trade in shark and ray fins. The latter is particularly destructive as sharks and rays are at the top of the marine food chain - the lions and leopards of the sea - and stabilize whole marine communities. They reproduce very slowly and have already disappeared from some areas and are seriously depleted in others. To top it all: pirate fishing is also on the rise.

Fewer fish has big impacts
As the amount of available fish goes down, the frequency and severity of conflicts between users go up, leading to serious social as well as economic and ecological problems.

But the governments and artisanal fishers’ groups have inadequate resources to cope with this. Traditional management methods like surveillance patrols, ecological monitoring, or measures to address pollution from both land and sea have met with only limited success because they are simply too costly for the region’s cash-strapped institutions. Clearly, while these efforts continue, other complementary and innovative approaches are urgently called for.