Deep Dive Into Fisheries Subsidies, Part 1: Senegal and the suffering sardinella

Overfishing has reached alarming proportions in West Africa, affecting the local economy, culture and people's daily lives. How can a WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies help?

By Tristan Irschlinger on December 6, 2019

Members of the World Trade Organization are currently negotiating an agreement on fisheries subsidies that will determine the future of our oceans. The need to reach this multilateral deal is embodied in Sustainable Development Goal 14.6, which calls to prohibit harmful subsidies that contribute to overfishing. In this three-part series, IISD looks at the impact of fisheries subsidies on the day-to-day lives of people living in different regions across the globe.

We begin in West Africa with questions for Dr. Dyhia Belhabib, a researcher and author of the paper Une exploration des impacts potentiels des règles de l'OMC sur les subventions à la pêche: Le cas de la pêcherie de sardinelles en Afrique de l'Ouest. She explains how the WTO negotiations in Geneva could impact the fishing industry in Senegal, particularly for those working in local fishing communities, many of whom risk their lives every day to catch ever fewer fish.

Just how severe, in your opinion, is the problem of overfishing in West Africa?

Overfishing has reached alarming proportions in this region. At the moment, the majority of the region’s important fish stocks are overexploited. Growing competition between artisanal fishers and foreign vessels has exacerbated the issue.

How does this problem affect average citizens in the coastal communities?

A Senegalese fisher once said to me: “I risk my life for fewer and fewer fish every day.” Over 250 fishers lose their lives every year in West African waters. Fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, yet this doesn’t stop them from going out to sea and doing their job.

Fisheries have always played a pivotal role in the social and economic identity of these coastal communities. It’s an integral part of their lives and their culture. They significantly contribute to the region’s food security and gender-balanced employment.

How does fishing empower women in West Africa?

Traditionally, the fishers themselves have been mostly men, but the processors have almost always been women. In this region, they are perceived as the experts in fish processing—women are often the ones supporting fisheries operations, the entrepreneurs. If fisheries collapse, the whole system, including the gender balance, will collapse.

What kind of fish do they rely on here?

Many fishers in West Africa look for sardinella when they deploy their nets. In Senegal, small pelagic fish like sardinella account for 75 per cent of the population’s fish consumption. Our recent study estimates that in The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal fishing for small pelagic fish, including sardinella, generates nearly 200,000 jobs, so it’s not only of cultural importance, it also has implications for food security and the local economy.

Why is sardinella so popular?

Sardinella is an essential source of animal protein in many West African countries. Most of the people in these regions can’t afford beef, lamb or poultry, so tiny sardinella distributed by local fishers and markets are often the most available choice.

Can sardinella be replaced by other fish?

The problem is that sardinella is at the bottom of the food chain. Forty years ago, the most popular fish in Senegal was thiof (white grouper). When the stocks of thiof collapsed, the sardinella population started growing and replaced thiof. But if sardinella stocks are depleted, there won’t be much else to fish.

How can a WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies help solve this problem?

WTO negotiations to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies constitute an opportunity to help put the region’s fisheries on a more sustainable footing.

Our research on sardinella shows clearly that unchecked fisheries subsidies are one of the key factors that have allowed this situation to develop and allow it to persist. The data presented in the study suggests that most of the fleets active in the sardinella fisheries benefit from subsidies, in particular, to cover the costs of fuel and access to other countries’ waters, and that these subsidies appear to play an important role in their profitability.

In other words, most fishing activities targeting sardinella, whether by artisanal or commercial fleets, may not be economically viable without subsidies?

Correct. So if we phase out the subsidies, while allowing for transition, the unsustainable fishing can be controlled.

What will happen next? How will this affect the industry?

It seems likely that the stocks would start to recover. This would, in the long run, increase catch opportunities and revenues for pirogues and vessels remaining in the local industry, who in turn may no longer need subsidies to be economically sustainable. It is, however, important to design a proper transition strategy to protect the most vulnerable.

How can we be sure that reducing subsidies will benefit local fleets, in particular, small-scale fishers?

There is a risk that this solution could have adverse effects on more vulnerable fishers in the short-term, in particular for the small-scale sector. To address this concern, one useful approach could be to apply a subsidy prohibition first to the industrial fleets, which are overwhelmingly foreign-owned and do not bring development benefits to West African societies the same way the small-scale sector does. Such a transition period could allow small-scale fishers to benefit from improved economic conditions as a result of stocks rebuilding, making subsequent reform of subsidies easier.

Is there anything West African countries can do today to prepare for these potential changes to regulations?

They should start assessing how the necessary reforms could be designed and supported in their countries. It’s a good time for improving the monitoring and surveillance of fishing activities. Finding effective control means will be key, but equally important will be supporting fishers through the transition. Governments should start preparing reforms to reorient public funds toward broader forms of support that promote rural development and strengthen basic public services.