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Fish for all?

[Senegal] Artisanal or traditional fishing boats in their bright colours on the beach at Soumbedioune, Dakar.
Type de pirogue utilisé pour convoyer les immigrants clandestins vers l'archipel des Canaries (Rob Annandale/IRIN)

Samba Sene stands between rows of beached pirogues in front of Dakar’s main fish market, eyeing the horizon nervously in anticipation of his younger brother’s return from a multi-day expedition.

“This year hasn’t been as profitable as previous ones,” he says, his unfishermanlike white kaftan in marked contrast to the rainbow of boats around him.

So what does he think of plans by his government to focus more resources on aquaculture? Blank stare. Having fished these waters for more than three decades, Sene knows a lot about living off the sea. But the idea of marine fish farms is news to him.

For Senegal’s government, on the other hand, it’s a state priority. Well aware of West Africa’s depleted fish stocks, it believes these farms may be just the ticket.

“If aquaculture is developed, people could let the sea rest for a while,” says Matar Diouf, director of fishing and aquaculture at Senegal’s Ministry of Maritime Economy.

His thoughts echo the Abuja Declaration, the result of last month’s “Fish for All” summit in the Nigerian capital. At the end of the four-day event, African governments unanimously called for an increase in fish farming to provide a cheap source of protein in countries faced with chronic poverty and malnutrition. In Senegal, for example, fish can account for three quarters of the protein in people’s diet.

[Senegal] Fish market in Dakar, Senegal.

Marché de poisson à Dakar
[Senegal] Fish market in Dakar, Senegal.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
La pollution menace les populations riveraines de Hann
[Senegal] Fish market in Dakar, Senegal.
Fish market in Dakar

Environmentalists wary of fish farms

According to the WorldFish Centre, probably because of its lowly food status, fish is also a social equalizer: it gets shared more fairly than other high-protein foods among members of a household and can be a source of income and independence to women who account for the bulk of its processing and sales.

The Malaysian-based NGO wants to see a lot more investment in African fish farming, claiming 267% more farms are needed in the next 15 years if the continent’s appetite for fish is to be satisfied.

And yet, not everyone is convinced that aquaculture is all it’s cracked up to be.

Haidar El Ali, president of Dakar’s Oceanium environmental protection agency, worries it could actually make matters worse by polluting the ocean and lagoons with antibiotics and waste.

“It can work if it’s very, very strictly regulated,” he says, “but that’s not usually how things work in Africa.”

He believes the alarming state of the region’s fish stocks has everything to do with poor resource management and that it is much better to handle existing supplies properly than it is to create new ones artificially. “These so-called developed methods aren’t natural,” he says. “Our priorities are being thought up elsewhere.”

This practice of raising fish in a controlled environment has grown substantially in recent years, now accounting for 38 per cent of the world’s production. In Africa, however, that figure is only two per cent. Farms come in all sizes, large and small, and can operate in the ocean as well as inland bodies of water.

Protecting fish stocks

Although the Senegalese environmentalist approves in principle his government’s plans to rein in unlimited fishing by requiring permits for pirogue owners as of next month, he says “there is a mountain of issues between a resolution and its implementation.”

And even if the government delivers on its promise, he thinks much more needs to be done. His first target would be the country’s fishing agreements with the European Union, which the United Nations Development Programme condemns as unsustainable in its latest Human Development Report, released earlier this month.

The current terms give European fishermen unlimited harvesting rights in Senegalese waters in exchange for US$ 64 million, the report says.

While fish farming can potentially feed a lot of people, it’s not necessarily the last word in sustainability either, according to Paul Siegel, the World Wildlife Fund’s marine conservation adviser for Africa and the Western Indian Ocean. “You can’t say it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

But if he finds it impossible to call aquaculture as a whole good or bad, some practices are easier to classify.

Introducing foreign species, as planned by Senegal with certain varieties of shrimp and carp, definitely falls under the “bad thing” category. “There’s a whole litany of places that have been just trashed because of introduced species,” says Siegel.

Even local fish can cause problems. In Senegal, many of the proposed species are carnivorous, which means they eat substantially more food than they ultimately produce. So, breeding large numbers of them can actually decrease the ocean’s fish stocks.

Also, fish raised in crowded conditions are vulnerable to disease and are often given antibiotics. But a farm’s water has to be flushed out to keep it clean and that, unfortunately, means chemicals also flow into the wider environment. One possible side effect: people develop immunity to antibiotics, leaving them more vulnerable to potentially life-threatening diseases.

Will farms mean less fishermen?

And then, of course, there is the question of jobs. Calls for the sea to be given a rest sound reasonable but could translate into an enforced holiday for many of Senegal’s 60,000 fishermen.

While Diouf says he doesn’t expect any serious loss of jobs, he offers only vague talk of education campaigns and encouraging fishermen to try other things.

It remains to be seen how the targets of such campaigns will react.

As for Sene, his brother has returned. He and his mates are pulling their pirogue and its cargo onto the beach. For them, at least, all these questions will have to wait for another day.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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