With Senegal’s Fishermen

Laura Dean

When a fisherman prays at sea, he performs his ablutions with salt water and turns the boat in the direction of Mecca. But on the tenth day of his journey to the Canary Islands, Djiby Diop told me, everyone’s prayers mingled together, voices rising jagged and hoarse, calling on the Great, the Merciful, to save them. Water poured over the sides as the wind knocked them from wave crest to trough and back up again.

They ran out of food. Then they ran out of water. Some dipped their cups into the sea. Others jumped overboard, hallucinating land. ‘We can’t save them,’ the captain said. Sometimes the sailors would throw a rope. Of the eight people who dived in, two were saved. Others babbled, terrified, unseeing, possessed by the devil, some said. When the motor failed to catch, other passengers accused them of cursing the boat. Their wrists were tied to the sides. One man, tethered like that for two days, could no longer use his hands when they untied him.

‘If you didn’t know someone and you touched them by mistake, they’d hit you,’ Diop said. He saw men suffocate to death under others. ‘If you screamed no one would help you. We didn’t talk to strangers. It was every man for himself, God for all.’ When Diop finally reached Tenerife, he spent a month in a detention centre before being sent back to Senegal.

That was in 2008, when hundreds of young men set out from Senegal’s fishing villages every day heading toward Europe. A strong Frontex presence and a robust repatriation agreement between Dakar and Madrid have slowed the flow of migrants toward the Canaries, though it hasn’t stopped entirely. The number of people who arrived in Europe by the Western African route spiked in 2015 and 2016, after a five year lull. Many Senegalese migrants now take the Western Mediterranean route. More than twice as many people have crossed from Morocco to Spain so far in 2017 as made the journey in the same period last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Pape Makla Mbaye started working on Spanish trawlers in 1980. ‘When we went to Spain for the departure I would spend two or three days there and then head out to sea,’ he told me. ‘It never occurred to me to stay. My country is what interests me, whenever I had holiday I would come back.’ A few of his colleagues ran away and stayed in Spain, but most returned to Senegal. ‘They were content because they had enough money, their papers were in order. Some would leave for two or three years, then come back.’ These days, having built his house and put his children through school, Mbaye takes fewer contracts.

His was a good living by Senegalese standards, offering relative job security and a quality of life unavailable to those who fished in the traditional wooden pirogues. But industrial fishing has taken its toll on the local industry. The trawlers take in far more fish than the pirogues and often violate the rules – such as designated fishing zones and restrictions on the size of fish – that are supposed to protect the livelihoods of small scale fishermen and maintain fish stocks. The fish they throw back are often dead.

But the pirogues, and some of their practices – such as using mosquito nets to catch fish – aren’t blameless. In the 1960s, fishermen struggled to find crew. Haidar el-Ali began working on the boats as a fisherman's apprentice and went on to be the minister first of fisheries and then the environment. ‘They would give you a small task and you would take home a fish at the end.’ Drought in the 1970s pushed inlanders to the coast. They too became fishermen. And Senegal’s population is growing. There are many more people fishing these waters than ever before.

Every spring, the ocean current pushes Senegal's next generation of fish toward the mangrove forests of the West African coast. They grow up in the shelter of the trees, which protect them from predators and foster a diverse ecosystem. But Senegal has lost 40 per cent of its mangrove coverage since the 1970s, according to the United Nations. Without the mangroves, fewer fish are reaching maturity. And as climate change heats the ocean, the migration patterns of other species have shifted, to follow colder currents further and further offshore.

‘Here in Senegal we have two seas: the masculine sea, from the Mauritanian border to the Pointe des Almadies in Dakar, where it’s rough and hard, and the feminine sea, which stretches from Dakar to the border with Guinea Bissau where the water is gentler,’ Moustapha Ndieng, the head of the national fishermen’s syndicate, told me. ‘Senegalese fishermen who fish in the masculine sea are the best in the world.’ Many have been recruited by migrant smugglers. But their craft were not built for the high seas, and scarcity and new migration patterns make their job increasingly dangerous.

Ten years ago, when the pirogues were streaming toward the Canaries, there was talk of sustainable development projects for these fishermen. Western governments and NGOs asked what could be done to make them stay at home. Their situation is as precarious now as it ever was. Some development projects in fishing communities recently lost their international funding, as the money was diverted to address the migrant crisis in the Sahel. Some of those migrants are Senegalese fishermen, taking the overland route north to Morocco or through Mali, Niger and Libya. Of migrants in Libya who were employed before they left, 52 per cent were farmers or fishermen, according to the IOM.

The sand streets of Guet Ndar, an island neighbourhood in Senegal’s second city of Saint Louis, are even more crowded than usual. Thousands of fishermen have just come back from Mauritania after a diplomatic scuffle lost them their right to fish in their neighbour’s waters. They wait every day for news. The only children with backpacks are little girls. Most boys don’t go to school because they are expected to become fishermen.

‘When I got back I was a little crazy,’ Diop said. ‘The dead would come back to me at night. My parents would wake up at three and four in the morning because I was hitting the walls and doors in the dark. They came to take care of me. They gave me gris gris’ – charms – ‘to chase away the bad spirits. I no longer dream of the dead.’ But he still thinks about leaving.

Laura Dean reported from Senegal with a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.


  • 16 May 2017 at 2:06pm
    IPFreely says:
    Aside from the NGO's nobody takes any notice of the refugees or why they take on such dangerous journeys to reach a European coast. There is talk of 'solving the problem at source' but it's just talk. Refugees have become big business while the EU exports vast quantities of food that destroys the livelihood of the farmers and makes them sell everything in order to try and reach Europe. To an increasing number of Europeans, the refugees are seen as a danger, foreigners who want an easy life, taking 'our' jobs or living off social security. A look at the Greek islands will show you just how seriously the refugee crisis is being taken by the Brussels bigwigs.

  • 18 May 2017 at 2:27pm
    Scaramouche says:
    In 2006, when the dangerous journeys by open pirogues to the Canaries were at their height, West Africa's traditional coastal fishing had been badly damaged by the sheer extent of industrial trawling in international offshore waters. Ironically, it was factory ships from the EU, and especially the Spanish, Europe's most enthusiastic consumers of seafish, that were the main culprits, while the African artisanal fishermen displaced by them were heading for the Canaries, part of Spain, as economic refugees. As for Mauritania's fish-rich seas, the resale of lucrative fishing permits proved a viable alternative income for the country's Beidane (Moorish)slave-owning élites, driven out of the desert by successive years of drought, and now able to buy holiday villas in the Canaries. The Beidanes habitually do not eat fish.