Voices From East and West Africa

This year’s Slow Fish, Slow Food’s sustainable seafood event held at the Genoa Fiera from May 27-30, 2011, has a special focus on the world’s small-scale fishers. Nowhere are these vital guardians of the marine ecosystem, who rely on the resources of the sea for their survival, more at risk than in Africa. Once rich in fish, the seas off the continent’s western coast have been depleted by huge factory ships from Europe and Asia leaving pollution and social devastation in their wake. Many who used to make their living from fishing have been forced into illegal immigration, mostly to Europe. These issues were explored yesterday at a Water Workshop entitled “Fishing in Africa: Social and Health Issues.”

As well as Europeans—Silvio Greco, a marine biologist and president of the Slow Fish Scientific Committee; Serena Milano, general secretary of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity; Cornelia Nauen, president of the Mundus Maris initiative—the audience also heard from African experts—Nedwa Mochtar Nech from the NGO Mauritanie 2000; Madieng Seck, a journalist from Senegal; Haidar El Ali, a Senegalese diver and ecologist; and Mwanatumu Juma, representing a women’s group from the Kenyan coast.

Opening the conference, Silvio Greco spoke in strong terms about the harm being done in Africa. “Europe now has a huge debt towards Africa, made up of the theft of resources and pollution along the coasts.” He described the increasing European demand for African farmed and wild fish as “a violence against the African people.”

Nedwa Mochtar Nech of Mauritanie 2000 coordinates the Imraguen Women’s Mullet Botargo Presidium. She outlined the situation in her country, saying that because of the predominance of industrial fishing and exports (95% of Mauritania’s catch is exported), “fishing has lost its social utility. Fishermen don’t go out in their boats and bring fish home to eat. Fishing has become a business aimed principally at exportation. And it’s selective. If the market needs octopus, people fish octopus. Fishing is ruled by the laws of the market, by demand rather than supply.” Little was left over for the local consumer, and traders held all the power, setting prices and dictating rules. Most fishermen can’t afford to follow the bureaucratic procedure to certify their products for European consumption, making the sector even more dominated by big businesses. With no hygiene regulations for locally consumed products, she summed up the European attitude as “exports must be clean, but what you eat is your problem.” She said that the industrial fleets who came to fish in Mauritania at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s had been banned from the northern seas. “You have rules in your seas but then you send boats to come and fish in ours,” she concluded.

Senegalese journalist Madieng Seck said that a quarter of the fish sold in Europe is caught in Africa. He said small-scale fishermen feel ignored by the authorities, who issue licenses to European factory ships without consulting local fishing communities. He drew parallels with land grabbing, saying, “these ships are grabbing the sea. They fish what they want, then leave.” Fishermen want to be listened to, he said, and to negotiate with the authorities about their problems. “We don’t want to say they can’t come and take our food, but we want everything to be done in the context of an approach that is sustainable, and above all fair.” He appealed to European civil society to help put pressure on politicians and raise awareness about the issues.

Senegalese diver and ecologist Haidar El Ali then revealed that artisanal fishing was not always such a sustainable alternative. He showed a short film, co-funded by the World Wildlife Fund, produced to raise awareness about unsustainable fishing techniques among local small-scale fishermen. It gave many examples of unsustainable practices, like the use of small-holed nets, pregnant sharks being caught and killed and too-large nets used from tiny boats. “They take what they can in the pirogue and throw the rest back in the water,” he said. El Ali’s suggested solution was the establishment of marine protected areas and the division of waters into zones for artisanal fishing, fishing with nets and no fishing. He described the good results seen in part of Senegal’s Saloum Delta after fishing was banned.

Mwanatumu Juma had travelled to Slow Fish from Kenya. Her women’s group in Gazi, south of Mombasa, smokes and sun-dries fish they buy from local fishermen. She described how the community used “fish management units” to control fishing and assist in managing the coastal environment. However, she said young people were not participating in fishing issues and traditional fishing knowledge was not being passed on from older to younger generations. “They are ignoring traditional ways of doing things and preserving the environment,” she said.

Serena Milano spoke about the experiences of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in working with fishing communities in Africa, saying, “basically, it can be summed up as men are doing bad things and women are doing good things.” She provided positive examples, such as the Saloum Delta women who were working to diversify their activities, collecting wild fruits and turning them into juice to sell at the local market instead of relying on fish. In Mauritania, Imraguen women’s groups are now producing high-quality cured mullet botargo able to command prices of up to 200 euros a kilo. “These experiences give us some hope, but we also hope we can work with fishermen and not just women. We have been creating groups and networks with women who process fish, but we also have to involve the fishermen and ask for their help for fishing to be careful and sustainable.”

Cornelia Nauen is the president of the international initiative Mundus Maris – Sciences and Arts for Sustainability. She showed how the density of big fish had decreased off the West African coast as fishing intensity had exploded over the past 40 years. “First they eliminate big fish, then the small pelagic fish, and finally all that’s left is jellyfish,” she said, using Namibia as an example. “It had 15 millions tons of fish in its waters and now it has 12 million tons of jellyfish and a lot less fish.” She talked about the advantages of small-scale fishing—less energy, less destructive, more selective, employs more people, better social effects—and her solutions to the overfishing problems tied in with much of what previous speakers had said. She cited marine protected areas and supporting training and credit for women, and also talked about working with artists and historians to collect community memories and traditions. “We have to have more respect for these traditions,” she said, “not just have people from developed countries coming in and assuming they have all the answers.”

Photo: Imraguen Women’s Mullet Botargo Presidium

For more information on the Slow Fish event, visit the website: www.slowfish.it

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