By Madiba Singhateh
Fishermen in Gunjur, western region of The Gambia, have raised their concerns over the scarceness of fish in the landing sites, especially the sardinella species which the public consume a lot because they are the cheapest.
Many fishermen associate the scarcity of the fish to illegal fishing practices, climate change and unfavorable fishing agreements between the government and international community.
Fatou Jeng, a fish smoker in Gunjur, said the price of fish is hiked and scarce because the (filaturnis) Senegalese pirogue are not at sea.
“When they aren’t at sea the prices escalate. As we speak, we bought a 50kg basket of fish for 1500-1600 dalasi around 30$. But when the filaturni are at sea, the price becomes less from 500-700 around 10-15$. The price of fish is inflated and insufficiency,” she said.
Gunjur is probably the biggest fish landing site in the country endowed with natural resources- from mineral sand, aquatic species and different biodiversity.
But some fishermen in the community felt displeased about the fishing factories and accused them of siding with Senegalese fishermen rather than Gambians.
Yusupha Cham, a fishmonger, said there is a shortage of fish and when that happens, the price will hike.
“I buy fish and re-sell it in places like Manduari, Darsilami and other areas in the country. But in recent times, fish is scarce and you barely get it,” he said.
Cham said people blamed the Chinese and the industrial fishing companies and the trawlers for involving in unsustainable fishing practices, which caused the acute shortage of fish in the country.
“When there is fish, the price becomes low but when it is rare it is inflated. I started this job four years ago, taking fish from the landing site to the communities, it serves as my livelihood, but as we speak, we are in dire situations because of fish scarcity” he said.
Fishmeal Factories and Artisanal Fishers
In the Gambia, there are three fishing companies established in the country’s 80 kilometers coastline. They are Nessim in Sanyang, Golden Lead in Gunjur, JXYZ in Kartung.
According to the fisheries minister, James Gomez, the Gambia’s fisheries sector is divided into three subsectors that are industrial fisheries, artisanal and aquaculture.
“The industrial fisheries subsector is better described as the capital incentive and involves the use of fishing trawlers and fish procession and fish plants. A total of 12 fish processing establishments and three fish-meal plants are established in the country, from 2017 to date. The activities of industrial fishing have created employment for 2809 Gambian youths, of which 2124 are deck hands and 685 as fisheries observers,” he told deputies during the National Assembly deliberation.
But many fishermen are in dispute about the importance of the fishmeal and the trawlers in the Gambian water as they fault them for releasing untreated toxic waste from their plants and killing fishes including juveniles.
They accused the ministry and the government of the gross violation the vessels are causing since every vessel has a Gambian observer. They questioned the lack of reporting when the violators contravene the fisheries regulation.
Alagie Sarr, a fisherman in Gunjur, said the trawlers have fish all and compete with them in catching the pelagic resources.
“There was a time when the trawlers surrounded our boats just to catch a fish we were also hunting. They don’t spare anything,” he said.
“When you want a catch, you sail 50-100 kilometers at sea. At times we go to Kafunting in Senegal at Casamance and Guinea Bissau, because they trawled all from Bour to Banjul, now onwards if you want a good catch, you must navigate into the deep sea. Before the advent of the factories and the trawlers, you sail in the morning and by 2pm, you are back with a catch. But situations change that when you leave nowadays, you’d come back in the evenings or the following day.”
Since the arrival of fishmeal factories in the Gambia, fishermen and host communities have felt discomfort over their activities and accused them of causing fish shortage, especially the pelagic fish which the locals also depend on.
Over the years, almost all the host communities had tussles with the factories and accused them of releasing toxic waste in the water bodies killing fish species and driving tourist investment since the area smells awfully. The fish meal companies turned the fish to feed and oil and shipped them to China and other parts of Europe. The pelagic fish is widely used and depended on. It is smoked and dried mostly by the women.
According to Minister Gomez, there are over 14 thousand operators engaged in fish drying, smoking, marketing, and distribution and this number does not include the young women / youth. The minister also said a combined 4234 fishermen are operating in the sub-sector.
Mai Jobe, a fish drier and supplier in Tanji, said she only buys fish when it is abundant in the market and doesn’t buy when fish are scarce. The fish are dried with salt after a day or two until they are off to the market.
Speaking further, Jobe said most of the dried fishes are sold in markets in urban, peri-urban, rural areas, and in Senegal, adding that their hardest challenge is the scarcity of fish.
Illegal fishing practices in Gambian water
According to Anadolu Agency, a report published by a High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy in August revealed that countries like Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, and Sierra Leone are losing nearly $2.3 billion to illegal fishing annually.
It is sad to report that The Gambia is losing a lot of its water resources due to Unreported Unregulated (IUU) Fishing. From a global perspective, a significant amount of money is lost due to IUU fishing alone as estimate indicates that the West African waters lost almost US$23.5billion per year – representing up to 37 percent of the region’s catch.
Malang Camara, a member of NAFFO, the National fishers Association, said he has been in the landing site since 1981 and that for the past four years, the sea is closed for night fishing from June to December, likewise Senegal and no body supposed to fish including the filaturnis.
“But the trawlers are fishing, they fish year-round. We closed the sea to let the juvenile fish recuperate within that period but they don’t care. They fish illegally, including fishing within six nautical miles and in prohibited areas,” he said.
In Banjul, Aziz Saine said the situation is frustrating as the trawlers are a headache to them. He said they cut their nets and fish juveniles.
“The most disheartening thing is when they’re fishing. They don’t leave anything, whatever comes across their path is fished. They ship the ones they need and the local ones are kept, when there is scarcity, they will sell it to women fishmongers in Banjul at (Warf Njogo) who will sell them at markets. They make fishing difficult for us, because we fishermen use “Yaiboye” sardinella species to fish since shrimps are expensive. So, when that is short, we cannot fish” he said.
Also, fishmongers have complained about paying 200-dalasi (4$) just to unload their fish.
According to the fisheries Act a person who contravenes in the fisheries water commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding thirty million dalasi and not less than five million dalasi or imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years and not less than five years, or to both the fine and imprisonment.
But at times when fishers contravene the fisheries laws, they prefer out of court settlement when both parties agree rather than going to court.
The minister said the fisheries contribute 12% of the GDP and is the third largest sector in the country after Agriculture and Tourism and the livelihoods of well over 200,000 Gambians depend on it and its related activities.
In 2017, just barely months into the government of President Adama Barrow, Gambia signed fishing agreements with Senegal. One of the agreements is to boost the Gambian fishing industry and capacity and yearly train five Gambians at the Dakar School of Marine and also both countries.
Again in 2018, the ministry signed a sustainable fishing partnership agreement with the European Union
According to Gambian Times, an online news outlet, the fisheries agreement allows EU vessels to fish in the Gambian waters and thus, extends the network of tuna fisheries agreements in West Africa.
“The new protocol covers a period of 6 years and will offer EU vessels the possibility to fish 3300 tons of tuna and tuna-like species as well as 750 tons of hake per year in the Gambian waters. In return, the EU will pay The Republic of The Gambia a financial contribution of 550 000 € per year. Half of this yearly contribution will be used to strengthen the sustainable management of fisheries resources,” the online news site reported.
But in 2021, questions were raised about the agreements and how they were signed, when rampant fish shortage was becoming the order of the day. As a result, the minister was summoned by lawmakers to deliberate on the matters related to the fishing agreements between Senegal and the Gambia.
According to the Foroyaa newspaper, during the question-and-answer session with the minister, he told the assembly that the said agreement was not ratified by the Gambia.
He said during consultation on the matter, he was told that the said agreement had been signed since the first republic and continued in the second republic, saying it is just a continuation and not a new agreement.
Foroyaa’s 03rd October 2021 article also stated that the Gambia, Senegal Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania have pledged joint water resources sustainably, which extends over 330,000 square kilometers 128 square miles from southern eastern Mauritania to south eastern Guinea-Bissau.
The fisheries ministry is responsible for monitoring the activity of fishing in the country.
“There are 20 locally registered fishing companies with only four trawlers and 52 licensed fishing vessels operating in 2018, and 90% of the fishing vessels legally operating in Gambian waters are foreign owned” the ministry stated on its site.
“We have no issues with the Senegalese as 90% of the operators in the country are them but the only issue we have is the unfair treatment meted against us by the fishing companies,” said Malang Jassey.
“They don’t work with us instead they signed contracts with the Senegalese fishermen and take our jobs”
Jassey denied the allegation that Gambians don’t want to be involved in the fishing sector, saying they’re not assisted, unlike the Senegalese whose government helps fishermen to acquire a fishing boat through loans.
“Climate change is also affecting us as the sea is rising, every year a portion of the land is taken by the water, which is affecting us because our landing sites are eroding,” he said.
Government intervention/climate change impacts
According to Inside Climate News, a leading environment news outlet, the oceans have absorbed about 90 percent of the excess heat and about a quarter of the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning and other human activities, leading to rising ocean temperatures, increasing acidification and lower oxygen levels that will have an impact on sea life.
It said shellfish won’t be able to develop shells properly; harmful algae blooms will proliferate, choking off coastal fisheries; and populations of fish will continue moving to cooler waters, leaving behind the fishing communities and economies that have depended on them for centuries.
Dawda Saine, a marine biologist, said climate change causes fish scarcity especially ocean acidization which starts from the surface of the water, saying when the surface of the water acidizes in the water column, it causes some problems in terms of production distribution.
Speaking about fish scarcity, he said one of the factors is overfishing and uncontrolled fishing- which is fishing without limit as everybody goes to sea putting pressure on the resources.
“The scarcity is caused by illegal fishing because if you catch all the adults then you have a problem as the food chain is concerned. It is also caused by the introduction of fishmeal plants which is competing with national consumption. If you want to use fish to feed fish or to feed animals then when you need it to feed human beings then there is a problem. The fishmeal plants are more powerful than the small-scale buyers who buy in small quantities for consumption as others take [them] to the fish market and sell [them]. If you look at the huge quantity being processed by the fish plant is another way of encouraging fish scarcity” he said.
Speaking on government intervention in the fisheries sector, especially the small-scale fishers, Saine said it is important that fishermen are given the responsibility to police their own resources because that’s where their livelihoods depend.
Omar Gibba the Permanent secretary at the Ministry of Fisheries said IUU is the second worst crime in the whole world and Gambia is no exception.
IUU is just like drug dealing is a cartel, “we are lucky that some of them we see and some we don’t, it happens in the high sea and therefore it affects our economy, a lot of people come and coach without our no knowledge, it is catastrophe!” he said.
Answering the accusations levelled against the fisheries ministry about not taking legal stand against illegal fishers, he said the ministry has shared contacts and informed local fishermen to raise alarm when the spot illegality on the sea.
“It is true the accusations are going on… We’ve told them and we exchanged numbers, that when they’re at sea and spot something, (they should) get in touch and I will get in touch with the Navy, but this is not forthcoming.” “But now, with the coming of the Fisheries Monitoring Control FMC we are seeing a lot and we are arresting.”
According to Gibba, fisheries licenses are acquired through application from the Gambia Maritime Agency, who will check everything concerning the applicant’s boat seaworthiness.
Speaking on juvenile fishing, he said they get complaints from people but when they contact their fisheries officials at the landing sites, they confirm it sometimes and then confiscate the fish and also take the culprits to the police.
On climate change impact, Mr. Gibba said they are now involved more in aquaculture, cultured fisheries and not catch fisheries because of climate change.
“This what we are doing and encouraging. Come 2022 we are anticipating that we will involve many communities and we have dug over hundreds of ponds for the communities in Central River Region and now we are extending to North Bank and West Coast where we are drilling boreholes to sustain those aquacultures”.
This story is produced under the NAREP Climate Change Media fellowship of the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism.