Overfished: In Senegal, empty nets lead to hunger and violence


Fishermen in Dakar bring in the evening's catch. 

Marc Herman/PRI 

When we met Baba Teuw in February, it had been six months since he had gone fishing. Like all other fishermen in his neighborhood, Guet Ndar, he was itching to go. But he faced an impossible quandary: stick to Senegalese waters and risk coming back empty-handed, or steal a few miles over the border into neighboring Mauritania and risk getting shot.

Baba has short-cropped hair, a neatly trimmed beard and, when not decked out in his fishing gear, he wears trendily frayed jeans, crisp jackets and shades. But at 27, he has the distant look of an old soul. He’s been fishing since he was 14.

“My father is a fisherman. My grandfather was one, too. Everyone. We’re all fishermen,” he said.

On a windy, February evening, he made us ataya tea: an almost too-sweet mixture of mint herbs and crushed mint candy. We sat in his sparsely decorated bedroom. It consisted only of a mattress covered by a starched white sheet, a few books including a Quran piled at its feet and a stereo playing Senegal’s prince of pop, Wally Seck.


A "transporter" carries fresh fish from a pirogue to a freezer truck in Saint-Louis, Senegal. 


Zach Campbell/PRI

Baba flicked through his phone and pulled up an Instagram video from a year ago. It was dated March 18, 2017. The shaky image showed a dozen fishermen, including Baba, lined up along the edge of a fishing boat. They hoisted a 25-meter net brimming with a massive catch of flapping, translucent fish. The men’s lean muscles strained against the weight.

That was in a different country, he told us. “Mauritania.” He said there are no more fish in Senegal.

Related: Senegalese women turn to exporting fish in spite of local shortages

Senegal is a dramatic example of a trend playing out across the world, in which 90 percent of fisheries are fully fished or facing collapse, according to the FAO. The crisis has been exacerbated by European and Asian fleets prowling the seas off West Africa.

The crisis is now forcing West African countries fronting the Atlantic to fight one another over the fish that remain.

Decades of overfishing have crippled once-prodigious artisanal fishing industries, which nations such as Senegal have long relied upon to nourish their populations. Worse yet, this is happening at a time when climate change is dwindling the amount of food grown on land.

The consequences include malnutrition across the region — from coastal Senegal all the way to Burkina Faso in Africa’s interior. But its impacts are not limited to this part of the world. Many of those who lack food here are compelled to risk their lives migrating to Europe, a continent where anti-migrant sentiment is on the rise.


A few days after Baba showed us his video, he got a call. A friend of his was going to fish and suggested he get on board. A lot was riding on this. If they got a good haul, Baba would not only have some money in his pocket. He might even have enough to travel the 150 miles south to Mbour, where his young son lived with relatives. He had a few hours before the boat set out at 5 p.m. It would be a long night.

If Guet Ndar were a high school, its fishermen would be the football team. They’re unmistakable in their matching, forest-green waterproof gear, swaggering down the length of a beach shoulder to shoulder, joking loudly among themselves like star quarterbacks breezing down a hallway in letterman jackets. They are the descendants of the first Senegalese fishermen — the pride of the community admired for their perilous work at sea and a headache to the local administration for their refusal to follow orders.

Guet Ndar is a thin peninsula located between the Atlantic and the mainland of Saint-Louis, the former French West African colonial capital. Once a stopover for trans-Saharan airmail fliers on their way to South America (“The Little Prince” author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry used to visit), today the city is a stretch of dusty terraces in elegant decay. It was declared a UNESCO site in 2000.

But if Saint-Louis oozes colonial romanticism — capitalized on by a few hotels and a burgeoning tourist economy — crossing the bridge to nearby Guet Ndar shocks you into a chaotic whirl largely untouched by imperial planners.

A dirt road runs through the peninsula north to south. It is bordered by one-story cement structures from which a never-ending stream of children emerge and then disappear, chasing soccer balls, goats and the occasional tourist. For the fishermen, having many children can ensure early retirement. Sturdy men in their 40s mill about in traditional boubou dresses, exchanging gossip and discussing the capricious weather, having passed the baton to their teenage sons.

But these days, the gangly teens — who’ve swapped their fathers’ traditional garb for Barça or Real Madrid jerseys — often hang around, too. They’re anxiously waiting for a chance to get out to sea.

By the Saint-Louis mainland, there is a vast fleet of pirogues: brightly painted, open-topped wooden boats driven by outboard engines. The vessels stretch up to 23 meters long. They face the Thiaka Ndiaye cemetery where generations of fishermen have been laid to rest.

Fishing is a dangerous job, and it’s gotten more so recently: 181 Senegalese fishermen, most from Saint-Louis, died at sea last year. That was double the number from a few years ago, according to officials who cite climate change and crews traveling vast distances to find fish as some of the causes. (By comparison, Alaska tends to see roughly 12 fishing deaths annually while commercial fishing ships in the UK recorded just nine fatalities in 2016.)

When we visited in February, the mood was somber. Bad weather and a recent flare in tensions with Mauritania — a nation to the north — had hit an already struggling industry. This forced some in the community to worry about the future. “In 10 years, this will no longer be a fishing community,” Assane Gueye, 68, a commanding retired fisherman told us.

We asked what would happen if there were no more fish. Assane shrugged and answered: “We die.”


Fishermen in Dakar, Senegal, are pictured. 


Zach Campbell/PRI

When Baba was a child, the Saint-Louis fleet was one cog in a well-oiled machine that successfully employed hundreds of thousands of Senegalese. It was capable of feeding families far into the country’s arid interior. But by the time Baba started fishing a little more than a decade ago, the system had begun to fray.

To feed growing appetites for seafood in Europe and Asia, foreign trawlers have scoured the seas over the last three decades. They often drag nets across the ocean floor and damage once-plentiful breeding grounds.

In a desperate attempt to compete, scrappy Senegalese fleets have responded by ramping up production, often employing illicit means such as superfine, nonbiodegradable nylon nets that also trap everything in their path. The effect: staple Senegalese fish, relied upon to feed the nation, began disappearing from the coastal waters.

This has put many fishermen out of work and worsened a severe food crisis. But in recent years, as fish have grown scarce, the fishermen have discovered that their boating skills are in demand by fellow Senegalese hoping to flee into the sea toward Europe.

Around the time Baba was joining the pirogues, tens of thousands of Senegalese, many of them not much older than he was, began attempting a perilous 800-mile northward journey into the ocean. Their destination: Spain’s Canary Islands, a speck of European soil. The journey could take up to 15 days and, at the height of the crisis in 2006, roughly 6,000 died attempting to reach Spanish soil.

Aghast at the deaths, Senegal was desperate to revive its fisheries. Officials believed that, if they could chase European trawlers out of their waters, fish would come back, local fishermen could return to their honorable trade and the deadly voyages would cease.

So, in 2006, Senegal scrapped deals allowing EU fleets into its waters. But a former Fishing Minister named Haidar El Ali said this hardly made a dent. Instead, European companies found a loophole: partnering with Senegalese businesses so they could continue exporting their catch to more affluent countries.

“None of the boats went back to Europe,” he said.

But there are fears that, in the future, the fish supply will dry up for foreign- and local-owned boats alike. For Ibrahima Cissé, the head of Greenpeace in Senegal, the current system throughout the region — where each country makes its own bilateral deals with foreign fleets — means that an unsustainable amount of fish is being caught.

That’s compounded by illegal and unregulated fishing, which costs West Africa $2.3 billion annually, according to a study in the journal, Frontiers in Marine Science. Cissé said that without a regional approach to sustainability, the seas of West Africa will be stripped bare.

“If they don’t find a solution, there will be a lot of problems,” he said. “The impact is illegal immigration to Europe, joblessness and food security problems impacting the whole region.”

Baba, working on a local, family-owned boat, doesn’t catch fish for European plates. His fish feed his nation — and the same is mostly true of the 600,000 men and women nationwide who belong to the artisanal fishing trade. The haul in a fisherman’s net here can serve as a vital source of protein for people living in the arid bush, which stretches from the coast for thousands of miles into the Sahel desert.


Fatou Binetou Sarr, president of Saint-Louis’s Female Processors Association, holds up dried fish, an important backup when fresh fish is scarce. 


Zach Campbell/PRI

In Senegal, fisheries provide 75 percent of the animal protein for the country’s diet. Farm-raised meat is too expensive. So fish caught by pirogues are the centerpiece of Senegalese cuisine’s national dish, Thiéboudienne: spicy fish and rice typically served in a large, shared platter.

When the Saint-Louis fishermen catch a surplus, it is dried, salted and stored for when times are hard, particularly in rural areas, where floods and droughts are common. Fish processed this way can be eaten up to three months after it is taken from the seas. This is an important backup for a country where, according to the World Food Programme, 2.6 million people (17 percent of the population) are food insecure.

The main fish worth catching off Guet Ndar (and the mainstay of local diets) is sardinella, a torpedo-shaped sardine that migrates between Guinea-Bissau to the south and Morocco to the north. Less rich in nutrients than other high-value fish — such as tuna, which is usually exported to Europe to fetch a much better price — sardinella is the affordable staple for the region.

But when Saint-Louis nets began coming up empty in recent years, the fishermen turned their attention to another area that was still teeming with sardinella: the waters of Mauritania.

“I had friends there, and they’d tell me, ‘There’s a lot of fish. A lot of fish,” Baba said. “There are big companies that buy all the fish. Even if it’s rotten. And that seemed great! They told me it was better to work in Mauritania.”

Baba was one of the thousands of Senegalese recruited to work in Mauritania for a booming new industry. Mauritanians typically don’t eat much fish. They prefer to raise cattle. But they’ve cashed in on their rich seas by processing sardinella into animal and aquaculture feed sold in Europe and Asia.

This product is known as fish meal.

With gigs growing rare at home, Baba crossed the border in 2013 and began fishing for a fish-meal factory in Nouadhibou, a city in northern Mauritania. But this job didn’t last long. The Mauritian state soon began to worry that foreign fishermen were taking jobs needed by their own people — and they ruled that, after 2016, the fish-meal factories had to quit hiring Senegalese.

Baba’s boss gave him 1,000 liters of gas — enough to get his boat back home — and told him to leave. He did. Thousands of other Senegalese fishermen did, too. But the timing was terrible. The Mauritanian government had also just decided to stop allowing hundreds of foreign boats — equivalent to 8,000 fishermen — to fish in Mauritanian waters.

Back in Saint-Louis, Baba now had a family to support. His first son had been born several months before his return, and he worried about providing for him. And he was right to be concerned.

Saint-Louis’s fishing industry was in free fall.

Between 2016 and 2017, according to local fishing regulators, the catch brought in by Saint-Louis fleets dropped more than 80 percent.

This has created disturbing effects that ripple from the coast all the way into the dry interior. Over the last five years, this fishing hub went from providing enough fish for nearly 650,000 people — the population of Denver, Colorado — to feeding only 70,000. That’s barely enough to fill Denver’s Mile High Stadium.

What fish remains are now sold at prices that would have seemed exorbitant just a few years ago.


Saint-Louis has the largest fleet of brightly painted, open topped pirogues in Senegal. 


Marc Herman​/PRI

To confirm these alarming statistics, we traveled inland from Saint-Louis along the supply line to Senegal’s interior towards the Sahel desert. At a market in Méry, a small town some 200 miles inland, female traders complained that skyrocketing prices made their fish too pricey for locals to buy.

But they need the fish. Badly. Malnutrition is especially acute in Senegal’s northeast, where climate change has ravaged harvests. Shorter and more erratic rainy seasons lead to frequent droughts and floods. This summer, more than 9.5 million people throughout West Africa are expected to experience severe nutrition-based crises or emergencies — or all-out famine, according to the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel. More than 500,000 of those people will be in the north and east of Senegal.

Sitting in the shade of Méry’s busy central market, a cement structure in the town plaza, we met a 29-year-old seller named Datil Ndiaye. She used to sell fish caught by men in Saint-Louis. Now, she’s forced to cross into Mauritania just to find sellable fish.

She sounded a refrain we’d heard before from Baba and others: “There are no more fish in Senegal.”

On a clear day, standing on Guet Ndar’s Atlantic shoreline, you can make out gray warships anchored on the horizon. They belong to the Mauritanian coast guard and float along the countries’ invisible border.

“There are no more fish in Senegal.” —Datil Ndiaye, 29, fish seller 

Mauritania wouldn’t respond to our questions about their patrols in the area. But to the fishermen of Saint-Louis, these military ships send a clear message. They’re an expensive “keep out” sign to protect the country’s waters from the Senegalese fishermen.

After weeks of rough weather, which stranded Guet Ndar’s fishermen at home, the wind had finally dropped and a sense of relief and optimism filled the air. As the sun set, pirogues filed out toward the sea. The men were on high alert. No one would sleep while out on the water.

Instead, if all went to plan, these teenagers and twentysomethings would work through the night and return with a decent haul. They’d each paid for their share of the gas to go out. But if the catch was good, they’d recoup that and more. It was a chance to earn much-needed cash — but it was also a gamble. They knew they were slipping into foreign territory patrolled by well-armed warships. Something could easily go wrong.

The Mauritanian coast guard will chase, catch and often confiscate pirogues and their equipment. These losses could easily amount to several thousand dollars, a small fortune to the fishermen. Occasionally, the coast guard would even shoot at the boats, aiming for the motors. But sometimes they hit flesh instead.

We spoke with a man who was shot: Boubacar Ndiaye, a 22-year-old captain. He’d paid little concern to the thought of armed coast guard patrols when, on a calm afternoon last October, he and his crew of 40 loaded up their boat and sailed five miles into Mauritanian waters. When asked why he crossed the border, his answer was typical of the area’s straight-talking fishermen: “That’s where the fish is.”

He knew that sometimes people were shot and killed by the fast-moving frigates that patrol the coveted fishing grounds. But Boubacar had been fishing for seven years and was used to the risks involved. He was missing a thumb — a 2009 accident in which a heavy rope wound across his hand and sliced it off. He was back working months later.

This time, the damage would prove more severe. Four miles into Mauritanian territory, he and his crew were spotted by the coast guard. In the subsequent chase, Boubacar, steering the outboard motor at the back of the boat, was shot twice. One bullet grazed his arm. Another bullet hit high on his leg, passing through his right buttock and becoming lodged in the left one. It rested millimeters from the femoral artery, a large pelvic blood vessel, which, if ruptured, could lead to fatal blood loss.

Clashes like this one are now common around the Senegal-Mauritania border where competition over dwindling fish pits Saint-Louis fishermen against the coast guard of their northern neighbor.

But authorities on both sides are tight-lipped about the violence. Saint-Louis police said the shootings are out of their jurisdiction. The local fishing service said it was aware of the incidents but unauthorized to comment. (Mamadou Goudiaby, the director of the Maritime Fishing Directorate within Senegal’s Fishing Ministry, said he would respond to questions but did not answer PRI’s emails or calls over the following weeks.)

Several other Senegalese government officials did not respond to repeated calls or emails either. Nor did half a dozen sources in the Mauritanian government. A recent Mauritanian statement denied a pattern of violence, claiming that during 62 interceptions in 2017 there had been no casualties.

But multiple sources who spoke on condition of anonymity — because they were not authorized to address the matter — did confirm the shootings. The same sources confirmed at least three life-threatening shootings in the last year, including the one that hit Boubacar. Many in the community believe the true figure could be higher still.

In late January, the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old named Fallou Diakhaté by the Mauritanian coast guard seemed to bring the two nations to the brink.

The Mauritanian government released a statement saying its coast guard had attempted to detain a Senegalese pirogue trespassing in its waters. But the small boat’s crew allegedly ignored orders to stop and tried to ram the pursuing vessel.

“Faced with this dangerous situation, and with the goal of immobilizing the boat, the patrol fired at the pirogue’s engine,” the statement reads. The bullet ripped through Diakhaté’s neck instead.

In response to news of the shooting, a mob of young men from Guet Ndar reportedly looted, vandalized and set ablaze several buildings in Saint-Louis, including shops owned by Mauritanian immigrants, but also, in a sign of wider discontent, some public buildings.

Following Diakhaté’s death, Senegal’s Minister of the Interior Aly Ngouille Ndiaye responded with a strongly worded statement questioning whether the victim had indeed crossed the border. He also promised to send a navy boat to the area.

Within two weeks, though, tensions had subsided. Senegalese President Macky Sall went to meet with his counterpart on the latter’s home turf — a move that outraged many in Saint-Louis — to address the border issue. Afterward, the two heads of state published a joint statement noting the “regrettable” clash a fortnight earlier. During the same visit, they tended to business, announcing plans to cooperate on a new deepwater gas project that would bring in massive amounts of income.

To many Senegalese, the cordial meeting between the heads of state confirmed suspicions that fishing is no longer a government priority. In fact, one week earlier, one Senegalese official told us that the government’s appetite for dealing with intransigent fishermen in Saint-Louis was in short supply now that this lucrative gas deal loomed on the horizon.

Local media echo this thinking. “If fishing is an apple of discord which the two presidents want to bite with diplomacy, the other subject that could lift the storm is gas and oil on the border between the two countries,” reads a February article from La Tribune Afrique.

Fishermen here have been crossing the border to catch fish for as long as anyone can remember. A famous Wolof phrase, Guedj amoulbankass(loosely translating as “The sea has no border”), is commonly invoked to justify doing just that.

The history of trade has long been fluid between the two countries, with farmers and fishermen frequently crossing a border that only came into being with independence from French Imperial Africa half a century before. But in reality, most Senegalese fishermen we spoke with not only conceded there was a border but knew its GPS coordinates by heart.

Local fishermen, faced with decreasing returns at home, are building bigger boats, spending more on fuel and going further afield into foreign waters to chase fish. Two weeks after Diakhaté’s shooting in Mauritania, the coast guard in Guinea Bissau — to the south of Senegal — caught 107 Senegalese men illegally fishing in their waters.

Fishermen crossing borders for their catch, while nothing new according to fisheries expert Dyhia Belhabib, cause long-term problems. It goes beyond unfairly taking another country’s resource and risking the wrath of coast guardsmen. By fishing abroad, and returning their haul to Senegal, fishermen warp catch data, she said.

This creates an artificially rosy view of stocks that, in reality, are probably even more depleted than officials will admit.

Belhabib said up to 40 percent of all species caught by the Senegalese artisanal fleets come from foreign waters. This is creating a “very dangerous” error in perception that she illustrates with an analogy. “If you have a bank account, and you’re withdrawing money, and you think that you have $1,000— but in fact, you only have $100 — you’re going to spend the money faster.”

A few hours after receiving his friend’s call, Baba and the crew set off. In two hours, it would be dark. And with no moon out that night, the wooden pirogues venturing over the border would be afforded some protection from the eyes of the Mauritanian patrols — if not their radars.

The border is only four miles away as the crow flies.

The crew set sail.

The next morning, a chill swept over the beach at Guet Ndar while we waited for Baba’s return. Women in bright dresses hung around in small clusters, some sitting in empty buckets dangling their feet over the sand. They were waiting to buy fish to resell at the market. Wholesalers in collared shirts and jeans looked on with cool detachment, earbuds slung over their shoulders. Young men with jelly sandals on their feet, and rubber pads on their heads to cushion heavy loads, waited to bring fish from arriving boats to nearby freezers.

Suddenly, a murmur rippled through the crowd. The word “Mauritania” was on everyone’s lips. A man in a floor-sweeping brown boubou explained that the Mauritanian coast guard had captured a pirogue. We feared for Baba’s safety but, soon after, he called. It hadn’t been his boat. He explained that, after a harried and fruitless night, his crew had returned earlier than planned.

He was exhausted.

On the beach in Saint-Louis, the mood was dampened after the news of the latest brush with the Mauritanian coast guard. Cars and horse-drawn carts moving at a glacial pace formed tailbacks on their way to the city center. It became clear that it would be another quiet day at the quay.

A few hundred feet from the shore, large, unused pirogues littered the beach like dinosaur skeletons.

From the vantage point of his office nearby, an official with the local fishing service Elhadj Ndiaye looked at spreadsheets telling him what everyone in Guet Ndar already knows: The sea is almost empty. “With climate change, the fish are migrating north,” Ndiaye said. His office was quiet and nearly deserted.

Now that Mauritania’s effectively closed for business, Baba has turned his attention south to The Gambia, a neighboring country. On the beach, it’s rumored that there are still some fish down there. Occasionally, he dreams of escape altogether, perhaps to Europe — if only he can get a visa somehow. “Do you think I could find a Spanish girl to marry me?” he asked one day.

Baba has friends living secretly in Italy, Spain and Sweden and is well aware of the dangers of sneaking into Europe. Another fisherman, Mama Diallo, 23, used to work as far north as Morocco where “you could see the light in Spain,” he told us. He often considered making the roughly 10-mile crossing.

“If I had wanted to go, I could have,” he said. But his friends’ reports from abroad, shared via WhatsApp, changed his mind. “People who go there clandestinely, once they’re there, it’s not at all what they imagined it would be. They’re in difficult situations.”

For many others, the allure of a new life abroad remains strong. In a report widely sourced by local media, 75 percent of young Senegalese between the ages of 15 and 35 said they want to leave the country.

Certainly, fewer and fewer Senegalese are making it to Europe. A recent EU policy to reduce irregular immigration has been effective. All the while, little has been done to tackle what drives people to migrate, said Ivan Martin, who researches migration at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University.

“Actual root causes, such as demographics and wage differences, are so huge that I don’t see that this can succeed over the long term,” Martin said of the current drop in migrants. “They will find another way.”

A week later, he was proven tragically right. On April 5, 20 people set sail from Saint-Louis bound for the Canary Islands, retracing a sea route to Europe that had taken thousands of lives in years past. Several days later, Spanish authorities announced the boat missing and began search efforts. Rescue teams in a plane, helicopter and boat searched for five days before calling off the mission without finding the boat or its passengers.