Senegal's Fishermen Struggle to Pull a Living From SeaBy Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 1, 1997; Page A16
And the boats have not a single fish to show for their toil. They have not even been able to put down a net. They slice through the glistening, clear green Atlantic Ocean waters, four miles offshore, seeking fish, but they spot only clusters of sardines. They see no fish they can sell.
Maguette Dieng, fisherman in charge of these two boats, recalls days when he could go out a quarter-mile or a half-mile and find enough fish to fetch hundreds of dollars from wholesalers.
Now, with a flood of industrial vessels, many from abroad, and overwhelming numbers of Senegalese fishermen invading these waters, he is lucky to find fish even this far out.
"We used to try to catch what we wanted," Dieng, 27, speaking in his native language, Wolof, said through an interpreter, "Now, we catch what we find."
Dieng's day-to-day struggle to survive is mirrored in countless lives around this continent. Thirty-one countries in sub-Saharan Africa lie on the Atlantic or Indian oceans. Some rely hardly at all on the sea because of limited coastline or lack of harbors; others, notably Senegal, depend heavily on fishing as a livelihood and for government revenues.
"When fish want to move closer to the coast, the big European boats catch them first," Dieng said. "It's not good for us, but it's very profitable for the Europeans."
For people such as Dieng, the sea is not just the source of family income. Five generations of his family have labored as fishermen. The sea is as important to him as air itself.
"All my life depends on the sea, on the ocean," said the bearded, muscular father of three. "My whole family depends on the sea — my father, my brothers, my wife, my children."
Babacar Ndiaye, Dieng's grandfather, added: "The sea is part of me."
Yet Dieng's father, Djibe Ndiaye, does not know if his five grandsons will say the same thing. "Life will be harder for my grandsons because of the reduction of fish resources," said Djibe Ndiaye, 55. "So they will have to try doing something else, and that will be very difficult."
It is hard to overstate how much a town such as Mbour, 50 miles south of Senegal's capital, Dakar, relies on the sea. Families eat fish several times a day. Some schools get their ink for pens from cuttle fish. Shark vertebrae are fashioned into necklaces for tourists, and dried, gutted moonfish become lamps. Seaside sand is mixed with cement for bricks. Rocks from the beach form foundations for houses.
By late afternoon, as dozens of fishing boats return to shore, the beach is a sweaty, noisy, teeming place, where a smothering stench — raw fish — catches in clothes and in pores.
The squishy splat of dead fish tumbling onto sand fills the air. Clouds of flies zigzag into hair and ears. All over the shore, men scale, gut, smash, slice, smoke and pile up fish.
The beach is filled with women sitting with fish stacked neatly before them. Sometimes young men from the boats hustle past with plastic buckets overflowing with a catch they are loading onto a wholesaler's truck.
The seaside is an all-day market, where fishermen can buy everything from cigarettes to sunglasses to a nice shirt-and-trousers ensemble. Women nurse their babies by the water. Men kneel and bow eastward and pray.
Babacar Ndiaye, Dieng's grandfather, takes in the scene quietly. Every day Ndiaye, with a friendly round face framed by a two-day growth of white beard, comes to sit by the sea at 6 a.m., and he stays virtually all day.
He relaxes under a shelter with other retired fishermen. At the end of the day, their sons share their catches with them. He said what galls him most these days is that fishermen do not care much about their craft. "You have to be trained, you have to learn the techniques of fishing," he said, "just as if you were going to school for anything else."
Ndiaye began fishing on his own at 12, after his father trained him for five years. Ndiaye used to be out on the water by 4 a.m., returning around sunset. He would go home for a few hours, then be back in the water all night. He followed the stars for direction and used the moon for light.
He spent so much time on the water that when a fish caught his hook, he immediately knew what it was. "The dorado [or dolphin] acts like a hen on the hook," he said. "The grouper comes and swallows the whole hook."
In those days, fishermen worried primarily about making enough to feed their families, buy equipment and build and repair their boats. A boy had many fathers; fishermen saw it was a duty to not only train but help rear fellow fishermen's sons. Fishing was about survival and community. That was before unemployment in parts of Senegal rose to 45 percent and men turned to fishing because there was simply nothing else.
The number of fishermen using traditional methods has soared in recent years. The number climbed by nearly 8 percent between 1991 and 1995, topping 50,000, and economic analysts expect the increase to continue. In 1991, small-scale fishermen snagged 249,724 tons of fish. By 1995, that figure had risen to 265,744 tons.
"Today, fishermen can make money," said Djibe Ndiaye. "They know how to save it, and earn more. It's good because they can use that money to go into another business. The bad side is that the government doesn't help [small scale fishermen] anymore. The government favors the larger boats."
The government favors large boats because vessels from Europe, Asia and Canada pay huge fees. That is one reason fishing generates an estimated 70 percent of the Senegalese government's annual revenues.
Earlier this year, Senegal signed a four-year agreement with the European Union allowing vessels from EU countries access to close-in waters long dominated by traditional fishermen.
A report by the Senegalese and Japanese governments, yet to be released officially, warns that some species of fish are dwindling fast and that wise management of the sea is crucial to the future of Senegal's economy.
The report notes that in Senegal a host of basic management strategies — such as designating minimum mesh sizes for nets and creating fishing seasons for traditional fishermen — "are almost [all] lacking."
The rise in the number of fishermen has meant that more people catch fish. And more people return to shore with empty nets. "In the past, the days [when I came back without fish] were less frequent," Dieng said. "Now it's very frequent."
The day before was one of those days. Dieng, a fisherman since he was 7, is hoping this day will be better.
He is going out with two boats, both owned by his family. In fact, 11 boats belonging to family members — brothers and uncles — will compete with him for fish today.
And he will have lots of other competition. As a vicious white sun climbs into the sky, no fewer than 30 boats cram within a quarter-mile of Dieng's. They all apparently have heard the same thing.
"Yesterday, people got good fish in this area," Dieng said, shortly after the boats' 9 a.m. push-off.
The fisherman is on one boat with three others, and they trail another boat packed with more than 30 people, ranging from lithe little boys to sturdy older men.
Dieng, at 27, is considered the senior fisherman, and today he will supervise, overseeing the operation once the first boat — the Matar Gueye — puts its net down.
This morning, whenever the helmsman of the Matar Gueye spies birds hovering, the vessel glides toward that area. Usually, the birds follow the fish these boats are looking for — dorado, grouper, sea bass, catfish, capitain. Today, however, the birds seem to follow schools of tiny fish, or nothing at all.
Meanwhile, on the 25-foot Mbaye Thoufi Gueye, Dieng, wearing a black knit cap, Nike jersey and Fila sweat pants, leaps along the rails and edges of the boat as though it were his living room.
It is clear that the boat is not a place for cowards. There is no radar, no compass, no weather bulletin, no sonar, no life preserver.
At 10:50, the Matar Gueye finally lets out its net. A line of young men spool out the green, blue and brown mesh, as nine boys plunge into the water to spread it. Dieng's boat approaches the Matar Gueye, circles near the net. Everyone waits. Twenty minutes later, the Matar Gueye crew starts to pull in the net. Rivulets of sweat and seawater mingle on the bare chests of the four men drawing it in. Mist flies from their heads with each hand-over-hand tug. "Let's pull it!" they yell in Wolof. "Come on, let's do it!"
Dieng leans over the side of his boat, a few feet away from the other. He is worried.
"We didn't catch many," he said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't be so easy for these guys. When you catch a lot of fish, it's really hard to pull up the net."
He is right. They haul in several small yellow-finned fish and a larger fish with a menacing tapered mouth and saw-like teeth. "We got a big one, a big one," Dieng said. "We get a lot of these, and we can make a lot of money.
They get only four of those. This day they are not going to make money.
And that becomes clearer as the day wears on. About an hour later, the net goes down again, but this time the crew of the Matar Gueye has a different, potentially disastrous problem.
"The net is stuck on something," Dieng said.
They work desperately to loose the net, hoping to avoid cutting it. That would destroy it, a waste of hundreds of dollars. So after an hour, after about 20 fishermen, including Dieng, have dived into the water, they free the net from a rock.
It takes an hour for the men to repair huge holes. By the time they finish, they call it quits for the day.
Dieng does not hang around on the beach. He gets a ride to his home nearby. He does not seem perturbed, or overly disappointed. Just tired.
Maybe his sons will grow up to shun the sea. Maybe they will fish for a few years, then pursue another business. But their father has no such luxury. The next morning he is again out on the sea.
"I have no other alternative," he said. "I would never consider doing anything else. I was born a fisherman, and I will be a fisherman until the day I die."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company