U.S. and European navies are teaming up with their counterparts from eight West African countries to conduct joint training operations off the coast of Senegal from now through March 14. The majority of the exercises are aimed at combating illegal fishing off the West African coast. In Dakar local fishermen and fish lovers are suffering as foreign, industrial-size trawlers net large numbers of fish and ship them primarily to European and Asian markets.
Issa Diene has been fishing the coast off Dakar for 10 years. He used to bring in $30 - $40 a day. Now, he says he is lucky to make $10.
He says the marine life and his livelihood are being destroyed by the "big boats."
Diene says they fish secretly at night, without a license. They leave their nets in the water and that kills the fish. He says the local fisherman cannot catch anything now.
When you go out to sea, you find nothing. Sometimes, he says, he takes his boat out more than 50 kilometers, but still there is nothing.
International agencies working to stop "illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing" say that the clandestine nature of the practice makes it impossible to know how many fish are being poached. Environmental watchdog group Greenpeace says some trawlers can scoop up as much 250 tons of fish per day, emptying coastal areas.
In 2012, the Senegalese government revoked the fishing licenses of 29 trawlers found to be operating outside of international fishing regulations.
The director of Senegal’s Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Cheikh Sarr, said enforcement agents often lack the resources to monitor who has a license or to stop trawlers found to be fishing illegally.
He says the authorities often get information about foreign boats off the coast that do not have permits to fish in Senegal, but officials do not have the resources to do anything about it. He says even national boats with licenses have been illegally catching endangered species and fishing in protected zones. This has been going on for a while, he says, and the country's natural resources are being depleted and the economy is suffering.
Seafood exports are down, and locals say the price of fish has climbed.
One ‘thiouf’- a popular fish used to prepare Senegal’s national dish, thieboudienne - cost just a dollar 10 years ago. Today, it sells for as much $6 at local fish markets, and that is, if you can find it.
Turning that around will take constant monitoring and is one of the main goals of the maritime exercises, known as Saharan Express 2013.
American and European naval officers are leading maritime personnel from Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Sierra Leone in the training exercises aimed at better patrolling their waters.
Capt. Andrew Lennon, of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, is the exercise director. "We have a bunch of scenarios planned in our exercise where we will suspect a vessel of fishing illegally, query them, ask them to stop and we will send a boarding team onto the vessel to inspect their catch. You can just imagine how challenging it could be for any individual to look at a hold full of fish and determine what species those are. Are those species allowed to be fished, or not? And so it’s a very complex problem," Lennon said.
Authorities declined to say who the biggest offenders are.
International watchdog groups say that although it is often hard to identify the origin of vessels found to be engaging in illegal or unregulated fishing, many have been known to come from Russia, China and some European Union member states. The majority of their catch is sold throughout Asia, Europe and the United States.
As naval forces crack down, authorities back on land are working to rebuild what has been lost.
Senegal's Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs says it is has been creating fish farms in local waters to try to replenish lost populations, educating local fishermen to try to regenerate what marine life remains and promoting sustainable fishing practices for the future.