West African fishermen in fight for better conditions

The existing international conventions are not working and the fishers are turning to the state for support

A tall blue entrance marks the beginning of the Mole 10 fishing harbour in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. Inside is evidence of many international interests. There is a fishmonger called Seoul Pêche, or Seoul fishing. There are other buildings marked with Chinese characters, as well as ships with Chinese names, and at least one in Arabic.

Among them are the Senegalese trade unionists.

In an office, inside a centrally located grey building, sits Yora Kane, secretary general of SAGMS, a union for seafarers affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

“The fishing sector in Senegal now has a lot of problems,” the 70-year-old explains. Fishing at all levels of the sea has been affected by “scarcity”.


“There are no more fish,” he adds. “It’s because of bad policy that we are suffering.”

Kane says the unions have asked the Senegalese government to enforce rest periods of one or two months where no one is allowed to fish, to give the fish a chance to reproduce. They want the government to develop aquaculture.

“On top of that there’s the delivery of fishing licences [the government] provide[s] to foreign vessels without considering the state of the sea,” Kane says. In particular, he’s referring to Chinese ships.

While Senegalese fishermen are employed on Chinese industrial vessels, Kane says wages are low, hours are long and exhausting, they often do not get the required number of rest days when the ship returns to port, and their social security contributions often go unpaid. “The impact is tiredness and some have health problems and there are accidents because people are so tired, worn out and they still have to work.”

Kane estimates there are 3,000 Senegalese fishers working on industrial vessels and 60,000 in the fishing industry – other estimates have the number of Senegalese employed directly or indirectly at 10 times that. Fishers tend to be men, with women more likely to process, smoke or dry fish and sell it.

Artisanal fishers have particular problems. Their boats are too old, Kane says. Because they can’t find fish within six nautical miles, as they did before, they now often go twice the distance from the shore, which increases both the dangers and the amount of money they spend on fuel. “There are a lot of accidents and a lot of people die,” Kane explains. “They sometimes collide with industrial vessels and… sometimes they have accidents because they can’t see. They go to sea without navigational aids and lights.”

Sometimes they go missing. “Some boats don’t come back...”

Malik Diop, co-ordinator for the West Africa fisheries organising project, works with Kane, as well as other trade unionists across Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. His work is financed by the ITF and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO Norway).

“We have never had such a project trying to organise fishers,” he says about his mission, which began in 2021. Trade unionists in different countries are beginning to exchange ideas related to how they can improve their catches and working conditions. “Before this everybody was minding their own businesses,” he says.

In particular, Diop’s project is attempting to reach out to artisanal fishers, who use small boats, called pirogues, and usually work for themselves. “It’s important to get them unionised and train them on their rights,” he says.

Michael O’Brien, the ITF’s fisheries campaign lead for Ireland, says the organisation has prioritised west Africa and southeast Asia in recent years. “In west Africa, there are millions struggling to maintain a living through artisanal fishing,” he says. “The challenge is wielding those masses into a powerful political lobby that can challenge the practice of most governments in the region of trading away fishing rights to big Chinese and European interests.”

In addition, O’Brien says, it is concerned about the working conditions of fishers, many of them African, “who are employed on those same big foreign factory vessels”, which he says put people in danger. He cites a study published last year by the Fish Safety Foundation, which suggests that more than 100,000-fishing related deaths occur globally each year.

In an email, Ismaila Ndiaye, head of the Senegalese government’s Regional Fisheries and Surveillance Service, says it is creating protected fishing areas and has introduced other management measures, as well as encouraging local fisheries governance and empowering local fishing communities. He says it has programmes supporting artisanal fishers, including the state supporting the purchase of motors to power boats.

In bad times, when there’s no fish, there begins another bad time of migrants… Because they can’t feed themselves they use these boats to go abroad, towards the Mediterranean and Europe

—  Yora Kane, secretary general of SAGMS

Ndiaye adds that Senegal has granted 150 industrial fishing licences, including 118 to Senegalese boats and 31 to boats from the EU. The 118 include Chinese vessels bought by companies shared by Chinese and Senegalese owners, which operate under a Senegalese flag, he says. “But for the ship to be nationalised, the majority of the company’s shares will have to belong to the Senegalese party. If we have to compare ourselves to the maritime countries bordering Senegal, Mauritania is at 350 licences and Guinea-Bissau 292,” he says.

When shown a photograph of four vessels flying Chinese flags in Dakar’s fishing harbour, Ndiaye says those ships don’t have a Senegalese fishing licence so they can’t fish in Senegalese waters, but they may have licences from other countries and be allowed to disembark at Dakar’s port, or may be waiting to obtain licences from other countries.

As fish numbers reduce, Senegalese fishermen are increasingly using their boats for migrant smuggling, Yora Kane says. They will pack as many as 150 people into one boat and sail towards the Canary Islands, an entry point to Europe. “In bad times, when there’s no fish, there begins another bad time of migrants… Because they can’t feed themselves they use these boats to go abroad, towards the Mediterranean and Europe.

“It’s obviously very risky and if they have bad weather… those people don’t know how to balance the load. The boat can capsize.”

In the first nine months of last year, 12,506 people reached the Canary Islands after sailing from west Africa – a decrease of 5 per cent on the previous year, according to UN figures. About 1,784 people died trying, according to Spanish non-profit organisation Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders). The dangerous journey – which is about 1,500km from Senegal – can take nine or 10 days.

In a bid to stop people doing this, the EU border agency Frontex has suggested sending personnel and drones to patrol off the west African coast.

If they’re supported, life will be much easier and simpler and more profitable for everybody. People will have fish to eat

—  Yora Kane, secretary general of SAGMS

Senegal’s fishermen seem more keen to see overfishing brought to an end, saying that will help create the conditions people need to stay at home.

In a statement in 2020, Greenpeace criticised the EU for blocking Senegalese migrants while continuing “to exploit the country’s fishery resources”.

The EU has had various fishing agreements in place with Senegal since 1979, aside from one eight-year gap. They allow EU ships to fish in Senegalese waters, though officials deny they are exploitative. As it stands, EU vessels can catch nearly 12,000 tonnes of tuna and black hake annually, in return for a payment of €1.7 million, of which €900,000 is earmarked to promote the sustainable management of fisheries.

A study last October by the Financial Transparency Coalition, a global network of organisations that seeks to curtail illicit financial flows, said developing countries were losing billions of dollars to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, with west Africa a “global epicentre” of the problem. Of the 10 companies said to have been involved in nearly one-quarter of cases, eight are Chinese, one from Colombia and another from Spain.

A report last year by NGO the Environmental Justice Foundation found that each year in west Africa, the bottom fishing vessels in China’s distant-water fleet catch an estimated 2.35 million tonnes of fish: worth about €4.74 billion. The Chinese embassy in Senegal did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Kane says that as a young captain he used to fish off the coast all the way up to Sierra Leone. “The fishing was much better, we were getting good catches.” He recalls once catching so many shrimps that “I didn’t know the weight of my own boat”; the shipowner gave him a bonus of two million West African francs (about €3,000).

“From the 1980s to the mid-1990s there were lots of fish. Obviously we had better lives. The cost of living was not so high , we had no problem feeding and looking after our families.”

Today, he says, there is a clear need for increased governmental support. “All these international conventions are here but not working. The fishers need support from the state… if they’re supported, life will be much easier and simpler and more profitable for everybody. People will have fish to eat.”