Donor countries are acting at cross purposes by tolerating, and in some cases registering, giant trawlers whose fishing techniques undermine west African food security, according to Senegal‘s fisheries minister.
“The giant ships, like the Kiyevska Rus that we are currently pursuing for illegal fishing, trawl small pelagic fish and grind it into animal feed,” Haïdar el Ali said. “Small pelagics [fish that swim near the surface] are a food staple in the entire Sahel region. In a single day those ships can trawl what an artisanal crew takes in a year. Countries like Russia, Ukraine, Korea but also Spain are depleting one of our staples and at the same time some of them are giving us aid. It does not make sense.”
The loquacious activist turned minister has just been greeted like a pop star in the bustling fishing port of Mbour, south of the capital, Dakar. He turned his back on his furniture-trading Lebanese family to become an environmental campaigner in the 1980s, and is the fishermen’s David to the trawler industry’s Goliath. In January, in a first for a Senegalese fisheries minister, El Ali brought ashore the 120-metre Russian trawler Oleg Naydenov and kept it in Dakar for three weeks. “The ship was carrying 1,000 tonnes of fish and it all rotted,” he said with a giggle.
El Ali’s passion leads to un-ministerial outbursts. He catches himself sounding more like the passionate diver and global militant he is than the minister he has become. “Small pelagics are a food resource from Sierra Leone to Morocco. They desperately need protecting all along the west African coast.” He thinks neighbouring Mauritania should not tolerate huge ships that literally suck fish out of the water but “Mauritania is a sovereign country and the ships are there under a European Union agreement”, he said.
Some people say complaints from the timber industry led to El Ali being moved to fisheries last September from the environment portfolio, which he had held since April 2012. But, if anything, the shift was a promotion in a country with a 435-mile (700km) coastline and an estimated 2 million people dependent on the sea for income.
After 20 years running his environmental charity, Oceanium, El Ali says he went into politics as a result of his frustration with the fisheries ministry. “The political will was lacking to stand up to the industry, which has considerable power to corrupt. I will stay in politics for as long as it takes to put the environment on to the African political agenda.”
He chews on a seed from a moringa tree. “This is like a miracle energy tablet. We are planting it all over Senegal,” he said, dropping in a plug for Oceanium and its 300 community bushfire-fighting units, bamboo-growing schemes and a mangrove-planting programme that he claims is the biggest in the world.
He is full of praise for militants of the waves, such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and scornful of mainstream environment charities. “The World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are just seminar organisers. It’s a disgrace that they stuff their faces while our firefighters have to beat back flames with tree branches.”
Even in his day job, El Ali has plenty on his plate. He wants radar stations all along the coast. The Senegalese navy has only two frigates, and it depends on weekly French air force flights for photographic evidence of fishing incursions by “a good 50 ships”.
He wants harsher fines that are a real deterrent. “The Ukrainian Kiyevska Rus is in and out of our waters. It can hold 3,000 tonnes of fish. In one trawl it can board fish worth 50m CFA francs [$100,000]. It can trawl 10 times in a day. Yet the maximum fine we can impose at the moment is 200m CFA francs. I have written to the Ukrainian foreign ministry, but it is difficult to arrest a vessel. I’m working on a new fisheries code that will give us the power to jail the captains and make the vessels Senegalese property. We will sink them. We need a few artificial reefs to combat coastal erosion.”
Earlier in Mbour, El Ali had been greeted with drumming and dancing, but he was not moved by it. In a short speech he managed to wipe the smiles off every face in the crowd. He told them: “On the shore this morning I saw 15kg sea bass alongside 500g sea bass. That 500g bass hasn’t finished breeding. He should be thrown back in the water. How do you expect me, as a minister, to be the guardian of your resource if you are fishing like amateurs?”
In interview, however, he makes it clear that the industrial ships are by far the biggest villains. But, he says: “We are all responsible. You can look at the sea and think it is eternal. Regrettably it is not. It is a living thing, just as was the tropical forest we today call the Sahara desert. The sea must not become a desert.”
Source: The Guardian