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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 00:46 GMT 01:46 UK
West Africa's delicate fishing balance
Graphic BBC
In the second part of his investigation of West Africa's fishing industry, Tim Judah looks at the tough task local officials face in preserving a unique environment.

The island of Agadir is an island of lost dreams. It sits just off the coast of Mauritania, surrounded by some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

But they are also Africa's forbidden waters - closed to fishermen, bar barely 1,000 Imraguen tribesmen who live here and in a couple of settlements along the coast.

If they are exploited commercially fish stocks along the West African coast will plummet - even more than they are already

Thousands of kilometres away in Brussels, European Commission officials hope that they are on the brink of a deal with Mauritania.

This will allow the European Union's (EU) industrial fishing fleet to continue to fish in Mauritanian waters. But, despite the EU's financial muscle, its trawlers will not be allowed in these waters.

Agadir lies inside Mauritania's Banc d'Arguin national park. Virtually unknown, either in the outside world or even in Mauritania itself, the park comprises some 12,000 square kilometres of land and sea.

Watery paradise

It is where the Sahara literally falls into the Atlantic. It is also a bird lovers' paradise. Two million birds from as far away as the UK and Siberia migrate here every winter.

Fishermen in Senegal BBC
West Africa has to choose between short-term cash and long-term fish
But, even more importantly, the waters of the Gulf of Arguin are the spawning grounds and nurseries of West Africa's rich but seriously threatened fishing stocks.

Because of the particular conditions of the shallow waters of the Gulf, fish migrate here to spawn and their young migrate out again when they are old enough.

As demand for fish skyrockets across the world, these waters have been closed to everyone, bar the Imraguen, because, if they are exploited commercially fish, stocks along the West African coast will plummet - even more than they are already.

Because these waters are closed does not mean that no one is out to catch what they can.

Fishermen fined

As the Sun dips behind the ocean, Modou Lamin Keita, a young fisherman from faraway Gambia, whiles away the time with his fellow crewmembers.

Here, if someone kills a rare shark-like sawfish no one says anything

Antonio Araujo, park adviser
They are waiting for a local official to return to release their vessel, which had been caught fishing inside park waters.

The boat's owner had paid a fine but while the boat was under arrest, the fishermen were not being paid.

"The boss said go, but be secret about it," said the Gambian man, explaining how the boss had encouraged them to fish inside the waters of the Banc d'Arguin.

Mauritania's fishery protection service is weak by western standards, but not ineffective.

While it is hard for the service's three EU-funded radars to detect the small, motorised pirogue boats owned by Mauritanians, they can make sure they keep out foreign industrial trawlers.

On the radar screens you can see dozens of European, Chinese, Russian and other vessels clustering along the boundary of Banc d'Arguin's closed zone, scooping its teeming waters.

Valuable commodity

Today, fish is an ever more valuable global commodity.

European Fishermen BBC
European trawlermen want to fish the areas waters
So, it's inevitable that there is increased political conflict when it comes to access to the world's rich fishing grounds.

And while officials of the European Commission negotiate for rights for EU fleets, Mauritania's own fishing boat owners are applying pressure on their government to relax the rules that keep them out of the Banc d'Arguin.

Many of the Mauritanian owned boats, which are often crewed by Senegalese fishermen, are based in the northern port of Nouadhibou, barely 30 kilometres from the forbidden waters of the Banc d'Arguin.

They complain that they are hemmed in by the park, by the need to steer clear of the foreign trawlers for safety reasons and the fact that the Moroccans keep them out of the nearby waters of the occupied Western Sahara.

For park officials, fishing is a sensitive issue. Antonio Araujo, a park adviser, says of fishermen caught inside the Banc d'Arguin: "They are poachers. If someone kills elephants or rhinos in Kenya, everyone says it is dreadful.

"But here, if someone kills a rare shark-like, sawfish no one says anything."

Delicate balance

Mohamed Boucief, the park's director, is keenly aware of the problems associated with keeping Mauritanian fishermen out of the park, but also of the need to make sure that the Imraguen who live in this otherwise inhospitable terrain can make a decent living.

Mauretania's fisheries
Employ 36,000 people
Provide 20-25% budget receipts
Generate 50% of its foreign exchange
Make up 10-12% of its GDP
He says: "Is it not normal to protect turtles, rays and sharks if I can't help the people?"

Although the Imraguen are allowed to fish they can only use their traditional sailing boats. Motors are banned.

The authorities are also trying to wean them off fishing for shark and other valuable shark-like fish that are caught for their fins. These sell for high prices in Asia, while devastating the local stocks.

The Mauritanian dream is to provide a livelihood for all of its people today but not to kill the goose - or in this case the fish - that lay the golden eggs.

The money generated by selling fishing rights to foreign fleets in waters except for the Banc d'Arguin provide the country with 20-25% of budget receipts every year. Fishing also generates more than 36,000 jobs in the country.

Recently, 173 trawlers from EU countries have had permits to fish in Mauritanian waters, as have 161 trawlers from other foreign countries.

The last four-year agreement with the EU, due to expire on 31 July, was worth $233.6m.

Sustainable dream?

Whether the Mauritanian dream is sustainable or not remains to be seen. Too many have already seen theirs fade here.

Berbers, Arabs and Moors have all occupied Agadir, as have the Portuguese, who discovered it for Europe in 1443, the Dutch, the English, German Brandenburgers and the French.

In 1728, one European visitor wrote: "This gulf is like a pond teeming with fish whose numbers never decrease, whatever quantities one takes."

Almost three centuries later, that unfortunately is no longer the case.

See also:

30 Jul 01 | Africa
The battle for West Africa's fish
27 Sep 00 | Africa
West African fishing under threat
25 Apr 01 | Africa
EU abandons Morocco fish talks
15 Dec 00 | Europe
EU slashes fish catches
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