By Sabine Tessono
Senegal, like much of West Africa, has both an intriguing historical and economic standpoint on both the African and Western continents. Senegal’s fortuitous geographic position means that it has several natural resources that break up its dry land, including iron ore, phosphates, and, perhaps the most important, fish.
Fish is not only one of Senegal’s most important exports, but also a staple in the Senegalese diet, with fisheries supplying 75% of the country’s animal protein intake. Even the national dish, thiéboudienne, a mixture of French, African, and Portuguese influences, comes from the fish caught by the Senegalese. Concerningly however, Senegal’s once seemingly endless fish reserves are rapidly dwindling, resulting in a slew of adverse consequences for the country’s economy. Many fisherman can no longer rely on fishing for a sustainable source of income or sustenance. To make matters worse, grocers can barely sell the small portions of fish they do have due to skyrocketing prices, while fish processors face increasing job insecurity. So, what happened? What exactly caused Senegal’s fishing economy to take a turn for the worse?
The root of the problem seems to be Senegal’s growing relationship with China. According to Reuters, China does more close trade with Africa than any of the other countries (despite the EU’s efforts to form closer ties with African countries and a history of colonization by the West),. China has invested $100 million dollars in Senegal and other West African nations through the “One Belt Initiative,” a project intended to strengthen the region’s transportation infrastructure. While such a large investment has resulted in a meaningful diplomatic and economic relationship between Senegal and China, it has also led to the rise of illegal fishing by Chinese boats, a practice that has cost Senegal and neighboring countries about $2.3 billion per year.
Many efforts have been made to stop this rampant and harmful practice on Senegalese waters. Chinese officials, realizing that the illegal fishing practice is destroying the Senegalese economy and threatening their relationship with the country, has attempted to halt illegal fishing by cancelling subsidies for private fishing businesses and establishing more stringent laws to control private fisheries. In fact, in 2016, the Chinese government cancelled more than $111.6 million for 264 fishing vessels and revoked licenses for countless other businesses. Senegal, in response to growing fear of impending economic and social doom, even cancelled licensing agreements with factory and fishing ships in both China and from the EU, but to no avail. Private fishing industries tend to find new licenses or new ways to circumvent laws and continue to deplete the country’s fish supply.
The ubiquity of private fisheries in Senegal makes it difficult to determine if this problem can truly be solved. If the Senegalese government does not find a feasible solution soon, the country will have to deal with serious economic, political, and environmental consequences in the years to come.