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Fishermen in Senegal: caught between poverty and exile

Prosperity development and preventing illegal immigration are among the issues on the agenda of the European Union-African Union summit in February this year.

In this Witness episode, euronews reporter Valérie Gauriat takes us to Senegal, where these two issues are closely linked. She traveled to Saint Louis, a former stronghold of the fishing industry. Today, local fishermen struggle with empty seas. Many blame the fisheries agreement between the European Union and Senegal. It threatens their livelihood. The crisis prompts many young people to go to Europe illegally.

When the car I took the four-hour drive from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, reached the coastal city of Saint Louis, I couldn’t help but smile. The memories of my last visit about 20 years ago to this tourist site, which is also a high prow for fishing, were still very vivid.

Dozens of colorful pirogues docked on the sun-drenched white sands of the Atlantic coast. Dozens of crews of proud Lebou fishermen, Senegal’s best-known fishermen, unload boxes filled to the brim with fish. Women followed by a crowd of happy children jostling to get their share to be processed or sold locally.

Scenes from another world and another time.

There are no longer any fishing boats on the “Langue de Barbarie” sandbank, which has been eaten away by erosion and covered with rubbish. The fishermen are now landing their cargo on the banks of the Senegal River.

Instead of happy bustle, there is anger today

The buzz is still there. But the joy I experienced so long ago has given way to anger: “The fish is spoiled! Foreign boats are polluting our sea, look at this!” cried a fishmonger, waving sad-looking little fish in front of mine camera around.

“We’ll leave as we came, with nothing,” said another, showing me the empty buckets to take home.

Foreigners are blamed for the depleted resources. “Their boats hinder fishing, they pollute the sea and catch everything we used to catch,” says Kala, a fishing boat captain, before boarding his pirogue with his crew. Moustapha Dieng, a retired fisherman and local boy, listens. He heads two traditional fishermen’s unions.

He is furious at the illegal practices of many Chinese vessels operating in the area, and even more furious at what he sees as nefarious implications of the European Union-Senegal Fisheries Agreement, which allows European vessels to catch tuna and hake outside 6 nautical miles -Zone (12 km) reserved for traditional fishing.

“The Europeans that catch tuna have to buy juvenile fish, which are used as live bait and which should be allowed to grow so that they can populate the seas. And the vessels that catch hake use bottom trawling, which is forbidden in Europe! These agreements will wipe out all fish stocks and unfairly compete with traditional fisheries,” he complains, to the unanimous agreement of the surrounding fishermen.

A day after our first encounter, I meet Captain Kala again, shortly after he has returned from the sea. He and his team radiate exhaustion.

“Nothing, there’s nothing,” he sighs. “There were a lot of trawlers not far from us. Spanish and Chinese ships. Some are only 7 kilometers from the coast. That is not correct.”

It’s not okay for Amina, a traditional fish processor who moved to Saint Louis with her family from a crisis-ravaged fishing village a six-hour drive from Saint Louis. They came looking for a better life. All in vain.

“Apart from today, we haven’t processed any fish in two months. We’re so tired,” she sighs. _”If it were up to us, we would seek help against these boats. So that they are stopped and everything is done for us to get fish. There are no more fish. We even sent some of our children to Europe on pirogues .Some went to Spain, some made it and some didn’t.”_

A shadow flies across her face. Three of her sons tried to smuggle themselves to the Spanish Canary Islands on fishing boats. Only one made it. One has disappeared. Four months ago she was informed that the third son had died at sea.

Irène Mingasson, the European Union Ambassador to Senegal, who I spoke to in Dakar, knows all too well the grievances of fishing communities. However, she insists that the fisheries agreement supports sustainability.

“This agreement is based on the existence of a surplus of resources; if this does not exist, the fisheries agreement cannot be implemented. The second point is that hake and tuna are not species caught by the Senegalese artisanal fishermen. So there are no competition,” she says.

Arguments that the fishermen in Saint Louis do not like very much. The young people I meet are unyielding. “If you sell the fish, there is almost nothing left. There is no profit! And we have no other work, from birth we only know the sea, we are dependent on it. Nobody will stay here, we will all go to Spain go,” promises an angry young man, who is immediately picked up by his friends.

The EU-funded programs to help young people find work in the private sector aim to offer an alternative to the growing number of people trying to reach Europe. Abibou Ka hired several of them after previously doing internships at his restaurant Darou Salam. The energetic and good-natured entrepreneur believes young people can build a future in their own country.

_”We want to pass on to them what we have, give them the will and the energy to achieve something._

I wish that by the tenth or fifteenth anniversary of Darou Salam, more entrepreneurs will come from here.”

A dream shared by Younouss, one of his protégés and the restaurant’s sous-chef. He is one of the many who tried to get to Europe by boat before being apprehended by the Coast Guard. He now considers that a stroke of luck.

“I have friends who capsized last year. That hit me really hard,” he recalls sadly. “I don’t regret it. Because now I have my own life. I have plans to build something of my own.”

Having something of your own is still a chance in Saint Louis reserved for a minority of young people.

That’s why Kala, the captain, a stocky and quiet man in his 30s, tells me that he made sure all his children went to school. He doesn’t want them to follow family tradition. Or follow the motto that I hear in the Senegalese dialect Wolof from all those who dream of coming to Europe: “Barça mba barzakh” – Barcelona or death.

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