JOAL — On the beach here in Joal, a large fishing harbor south of Senegal’s capital of Dakar, a group of women watch as fishermen unload their catch from their motor boats. It wasn’t such a good day.
But empty nets are not the only disappointment here. A Russian factory that will transform fresh fish into meal is scheduled to open soon along the shore, disrupting the locals’ salting and drying activities.
This work — traditionally done by women — is essential to preserve the catch and therefore feed the rest of the country. But today, once again, they won’t be able to buy a single case of fish. Some say they sometimes spend an entire month without any work.
The situation has gotten much worse since Chinese, Korean and Russian factories have started sprouting up along the coast to produce meal for aquaculture and fish farms in Asia and Europe. Between 2011 and 2014, as many as 11 factories were built near landing sites in harbors between Kayar, north of Dakar, and Joal, an area that covers about one-third of the Senegalese coast.
In Joal, a town of 40,000 people, the atmosphere has been strained since the construction of the Russian factory Flash Africa was announced. Above the water, its fence is already towering. Marianne Teneng Ndaye, head of a group of women workers in Joal, has called to a day of action.
Five years ago, she says, the Koreans came but were interested in symbium, a very popular shellfish. “That didn't bother us, but now they’re also buying fresh sardinella,” she says. “What are we going to eat? The Russian factory wants to produce 46 tons of meal per day. For that, they’ll need 460 tons of fish, but the fishermen of Joal never catch more than 200 tons per day, and that has been the case since 2010! We’re going to die!”
Khadi Diagne, one of the workers, complains that the price of fish has already doubled over the course of just a few years. One case of 50 kilos costs the equivalent of $12, she says. “I can't buy it anymore,” she says, noting that she earns half of what she did three years ago. “Here, families rely on women to eat.”
Livelihoods and the primary food source
Competition with foreign factories is all the more dramatic for the locals since the quantity of fish in the sea has diminished. The decline in numbers was first felt in the 1990s with the arrival of massive fishing boats from abroad — which sometimes fish illegally. In Senegal, where the ocean provides most of the animal protein people eat here, the issue has become a matter of food security.
Five hundred women work full time in Joal. They salt, braise and dry jack mackerels, anchovies, mackerels and sardinellas, the main ingredient of the national dish.
In the morning, sometimes thousands of women and of children come to shell the fish, and they are joined by salt merchants and farmers who cart in the straw used to smoke the fish. Tens of thousands of people will be directly or indirectly affected by the opening of Flash Africa. And consumers will be deprived of the dried fish that is sold as far as the marketplace of Benin.
But Joal Mayor Paul Ndong doesn’t see things that way. “The local authority, the population, the fishermen, the project’s promotor: Everybody agrees,” he claims. “There will be 170 jobs for the youngsters at the factory. And the owners promised they would repair the town hall, built electrical installations and a maternity ward.”
But what will happen if there’s no more fish to dry? “That’s impossible,” he says. “They’re not going to fish just in Joal, but everywhere.”
Senegal President Macky Sall held a meeting in January with representatives of the Senegalese fishing sector who are worried about the future of their trade. Thousands of people from among the 600,000 who live off fishing came to support a crackdown on illegal fishing and a commitment to sustainable ocean management.
“We need to think together of a way to bring the fish back,” says Diapa Diop, undersecretary for traditional fishing. “We must create protected marine areas, periods of biological recovery for certain species. And we need to review the factory authorizations. If our population doesn’t have enough to eat, then we must stop exporting.”