By Edrissa Jallow
The cost of overfishing in The Gambia for the past few years has been a cause for concern for many citizens in The Gambia. Our reporter joined a boat for a whole day in Tanji, where he engaged at least two local fishermen to hear their concerns in carrying out their work and observe their working environment out at sea. Most Fishermen expressed deep frustration with the Barrow government for allowing the owners of Chinese and non-Gambian vessels to overfish in The Gambia’s territory.
The Gambia was ruled for 22 years by former President Yahya A J J Jammeh from 1994 when he took over power via a coup up to 2017 January when he lost elections to current President Adama Barrow who won his second term in office in December 2021.
Back in 2018 the European Union and The Gambia’s Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources signed a Sustainable Fishing Partnership agreement which included “fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance and fight against illegal, underreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing” amongst others. However, it appears that this agreement is not having the desired effect as fishermen say encroachments have become the order of the day. The agreement also gives EU fishing vessels access to fish in The Gambia.
In addition to this, The Gambia also had an agreement allowing 10 Senegalese fishing vessels to fish in The Gambia which also gave The Gambia the same authority to sail 10 fishing vessels in Senegal. However, the agreement has been criticised because Gambian fishing vessels can’t compete in Senegalese territory. Gambian Fishermen have raised concerns that their boats have been sunk by bigger fishing vessels while attempting to fish in Senegal.
So, in essence, Chinese, Senegalese and EU fishing vessels have all been given some sort of access to fish in The Gambia. However, apart from Senegal, this agreement is not reciprocal and Gambian fishing vessels lack the capacity to fish in Senegal let alone in the EU and China.
Tanji Fishermen Lament Increased Encroachments
Meanwhile, in Tanji fishermen say the river is their only hope of earning a living at the moment. However, for the past few years, they say the river has not been productive compared to previous years [pre-2017 under the regime of former President Jammeh].
The two hardworking fishermen, Batch Ceesay and Alieu Camara have been fishing at the country’s main fishing Center in Tanji, West Coast Region for decades. Batch Ceesay believes that during his years of fishing, the previous regime was the best period of fishing in the Gambia as far as he is concerned. According to him, Chinese Trawlers were less frequent in the river compared to now.
“When former President Yahya Jammeh was in power, the fishing industry was very good, and there was river control. The river used to have a park [buffer zone] from Banjul to Kartong border and the park is about 4 kilometres where 20 litres oil vegetable gallons are put [out in the sea] and no fishermen dare to fish including trawlers,” Fisherman Ceesay told our reporter.
He believes that “if Jammeh was here, you would realize that the river would be very productive. Now they [the Barrow government] have spoiled the river, there is no river control, Every year the river becomes weaker”.
Explaining challenges faced in the river, Mr Ceesay says trawlers are their major challenges as sometimes they fish on their side of the river [within the buffer zone] and sometimes they cause accidents with local fishermen in the sea.
“The Chinese wait until night and they come below to fish and the moment they come down you will see that they will be fishing until 4 to 5 am and when the dawn is approaching they [Chinese trawlers] pull their net and go up, and in the morning when we go fishing in that area you will realize that this area is super dry and we can’t risk using our boats up to where trawlers use to fish” Fisherman Ceesay explained to our reporter.
In reaction to the wave of overfishing claims Amnesty International published their detailed research on the topic earlier in May 2023. The report highlighted the challenges facing The Gambia’s coastal region of Sanyang which is a major tourism hub and a center for fishing where a large fish oil factory is located called Nessim Fishing Factory established by Chinese National.
According to the report, “it is estimated that Gambia, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone together lose USD 2.3 billion annually to illegal fishing”.
Overfishing is not only affecting the fishermen in the river but also fishing factories are polluting the environment, especially the Nessim fishing factory in Sanyang, Amnesty report says the Nessim fishing factory doesn’t treat its wastewater properly before disposing it into the sea.
The report further captures the grave concerns of the local community in Sanyang about their environment being polluted by the Chinese Factory.
“Nessim has been fined several times by the National Environmental Agency for not properly treating its wastewater, which it discharges into the sea. Fishermen that supply the factory have also dumped dead fish back into the water on several occasions after Nessim declined to purchase them, leaving the beach covered in dead fish,” noted the Amnesty report.
Alieu Camara: Sometimes We Go to Fishing And Return With No Fish
Alieu Camara and Bacth Ceesay both work on the same boat owned by a Senegalese-based American. During his interaction with our reporter, he revealed that sometimes they would go fishing and return with no fish captured due to the dryness of the river and overfishing by non-Gambians.
“Sometimes we go fishing and return with an empty boat after spending almost five thousand dalasis (D5,000 just less than $100) on fuel and hours in the sea. Imagine that painful stress bro,” Fisherman Camara told our reporter. “During those days [Jammeh regime] there will be no day that we will go fishing and return with empty boat except if there is too much wind or heavy downpour whereby we decided to return for our safety”.
Mr Camara is a school dropout who decided to venture into fishing. He started his career at Bakau fishing center around 2009 to 2010 to support his family.
Amnesty: Government Should Hold Nessim Fishing Factory to Account
During the research period, Amnesty International Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Samira Daoud, says malpractice by certain actors in the fishing industry is harming the environment and undermining people’s livelihoods. Meanwhile, calling Gambian authorities to take action against Nessim Company.
“The Gambian authorities must urgently take all necessary steps to hold them to account and protect the human rights of affected communities including their economic and social rights,” Mr Daoud said.
Adding that, “The Gambian government and international community actors operating in the affected areas must ensure that foreign vessels and FMFO factories respect both national and international fishing regulations. Local communities must remain able to catch fish using sustainable methods.”
In 2020, a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that both Sardinella and Bonga fish are being over-exploited, while “stocks of sardines are also being undermined. This over-exploitation is due to the activities of all actors in the fishing industry, including fish-meal factories”.