West Africa: Fishing Communities Restore Health to Ocean Habitats

June 5, 2013

  • World Environment Day and World Oceans Day raise global awareness of the many challenges faced by countries
  • Coastal communities in West Africa have seen significant progress in developing fisheries management
  • Community groups are slowly changing the way people treat the environment and ocean resources, as seen in three country snapshots

WASHINGTON, June 5, 2013—As the world celebrates World Environment Day on June 5th, and World Ocean's Day on June 8th, countries in West Africa are working to preserve fish and sea ecosystems currently under siege.

In coastal communities across West Africa, the ocean is a way of life. It is key to providing incomes and a critical source of nutrition, especially for the poor. Yet overfishing, poor fishing practices, and pollution are depleting fish stocks in some of the world’s most important ocean habitats.

Along the coasts of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Atlantic Ocean offers a hospitable home to the richest variety of marine biodiversity. The fishing industry earns these countries an estimated $4.9 billion per year, increasing GDP at the national level and sustaining incomes and providing food security for fishing communities at the local level.

“In Africa, fisheries support some 10 million livelihoods,” said Jamal Saghir, World Bank Director of Sustainable Development for the Africa Region. “With better governance, these fisheries could generate at least an additional US$2 billion each year. Unlike minerals and other non-renewable resources, this would be a continual contribution to economic growth throughout the region.”                                              

Illegal fishing depleting stocks for local communities

West African fisheries face pressure on many fronts. Up and down the coast, illegal fishing by both foreign industrial vessels and unregistered artisanal fishermen have reduced the stocks of many important species.  The large ships with bottom trawlers, when fishing illegally within the six mile Exclusive Economic Zone of these countries, often damage fish habitats on the sea floor, deplete fish stocks by thousands of tons, and in extreme cases risk the lives of local fishermen and women. InIn addition to pressures from overfishing, poor fishing practices also threaten the sustainability of the fisheries. The use of monofilament nets, dynamite fishing and beach seining—known commonly as haul fishing—pull in greater numbers of fish, but kill juvenile fish before they have a chance to grow and reproduce. 

In Senegal, President Macky Sall has shown exemplary leadership  in managing the ocean off of his coast. One of President Sall’s first acts after his election in 2012 was to rescind foreign fishing permits in Senegal’s Exclusive Economic Zone, a 158-square kilometer area of ocean dedicated to commercial fishing. As a result of his work, in 2013, President Sall received the prestigious Peter Benchley Ocean Award for his leadership in supporting small-scale fishers in his country.

Managing natural resources

The World Bank is supporting West African governments in their efforts to better manage the region’s rich natural resources through its West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP).

Starting in 2009, the WARFP has supported Ghana, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Guinea and Mauritania will join the program next year.  The program supports a combination of regional cooperation, national reforms and local education and empowerment in order to help West African countries work together to manage their shared resources.

“Promoting the recovery of Africa’s fish resources and preserving the ocean environment requires cooperation among Africa countries and their international partners,” said Colin Bruce, World Bank Director for Strategy, Operations and Regional Integration. “Programs such as regional fisheries research and management, already underway as pilot projects, will lead the way towards improved protection of Africa’s marine environment."

Country Snapshots

Fishing and community engagement in Senegal

Along Senegal’s coast, fishing communities have made significant progress in developing fisheries management, where the communities themselves take responsibility for managing the health of their natural resources and marine environments. In Ngaparou, 40 miles from Senegal’s capital Dakar, residents worked closely with international and regional organizations as part of the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program to establish “co-management areas” run entirely by the local fishing community.

The community group sets limits on the number of fishing boats that can fish at a given time, collectively registers fishing vessels and uses self-policing to enforce limits. The U.S. Coast Guard also helps by monitoring illegal fishing along the coast.

Less than four years after the launch of WARFP, fish stocks have completely rebounded in this community. Ngaparou is now one of the most productive coastal marine areas in the country, according to Issa Sagne, President of the Local Committee of Fishers of Ngaparou (CLP).

“In the beginning, the main objective was restoration of our fish,” Sagne said. “Now, the fish are really abundant.”

With increased revenue from the fishery, employment in Ngaparou has quickly diversified.  Local women have joined together to manage a small fishing supply store. And last year, the community pooled its resources to purchase a refrigerated truck that allows fishers to sell their catch at markets farther from the village.

Community Based Monitoring in Liberia

West Point, on the edge of Monrovia, is one of Liberia’s largest slums. An estimated 78,000 people have crowded onto this narrow sandbar between the city and the sea, and nearly every resident depends either directly or indirectly on fishing. 

Patrick Sayon is a coordinator with the Community Sciences for Coastal and Inshore Marine Resources Program  in Liberia. The program is carried out in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Liberian Bureau of National Fisheries (BNF) and engages volunteers to use basic science methods to periodically monitor key indicators of ocean and fishery health. Each month, the volunteers measure air and water temperature, conduct hygiene checks at fish landing and processing sites, and check for reports of trawling and destructive fishing practices.

The information is collected by the national government to help inform policy decisions. Today, the West Point fishermen say they are bringing in larger fish, and the number of incidents with pirate trawlers has dropped. “We are catching more fish,” says Ema Sonwiel, chief of the local fishermen at West Point.

Stamping Out Illegal Fishing

Sierra Leone’s civil war left fisheries largely ungoverned for 10 years in the 1990s and early 2000s. Foreign fishing fleets overfished the waters, and poured tons of dead fish back into the ocean, polluting the waters and dramatically lowering the fish stocks.

The WARPF in Sierra Leone has worked closely with the Ministry of Fisheries to improve surveillance and prosecution of illegal fishing vessels, resulting in a significant drop in these ships off the coast. In the marine villages, fishers are learning sustainable fishing practices, methods to improve fish processing, and the dangers related to damaging practices.

“Without the fish, it would be very, very bad,” says Addie, a young woman from Freetown. “For most, fish is the only protein available. Without the fish, we would get thin and weak - we would die.”