Every day in the afternoon, fishermen pilot brightly colored canoes called pirogues back from a day’s work on the ocean and haul their catches onto shore. For as long as they can remember, people who live in Joal-Fadiouth, Senegal, on the West African coast have depended on the bounty of the sea; fish is not only their main source of protein but also their primary commercial product. But on many days, fishermen from this town of 46,000 are coming back from the sea without a catch.
Once home to the world’s most abundant fish stocks, the waters of West Africa have fallen prey to overfishing by industrial trawlers, devastating places such as Joal-Fadiouth. In the last few decades, the percentage of overfished marine fisheries worldwide has tripled. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a third of all fished stocks are fished at unsustainable levels and another 60 percent have no capacity for increased fishing—largely because of the increased demand for fish and fish meal, a powdered protein used to feed other animals such as fish and livestock in European and Asian markets.
Governments around the world spend more than $35 billion to subsidize fishing. About $30 billion of this amount goes to large-scale industrial fishers, many in developed nations in Europe, China, and Russia, rather than to small-scale fishers in vulnerable coastal countries such as Senegal, according to Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. Subsidy payments that offset material costs—fuel, gear, and construction—also enable the bigger vessels to work longer and travel farther out to sea, which can lead to overfishing, stressing the fish populations beyond what is sustainable. Some industrial fishing methods indiscriminately sweep the ocean floor with massive nets that leave little for fishers who use traditional equipment.
“What is so problematic is using taxpayers’ money to overfish the stock, because this doesn’t help the community,” says Sumaila. “We’re losing about 10 million tons of fish a year because we’re not managing it well.” Fishers in developing countries get $1 in subsidies from taxpayers to every $7 that their counterparts in developed countries receive, he says.
Fishers in Joal-Fadiouth feel the effects. “There are a lot of people who used to make money fishing that don’t have a penny,” says Malik Seye, a fisherman and captain of a fishing boat. “I think about our children’s future a lot, because I think fishing will become harder and harder every day. I do not wish my children to become fishermen.”
Soon, however, global policymakers will have a rare opportunity to help repair the situation, which has threatened the way of life for Seye and his fellow fishers on the African coast. The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to encourage members of the World Trade Organization to adopt a binding agreement that will limit or eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies by the end of 2019—which is not only one of the single greatest actions that could ensure the health of the world’s oceans, but also would help sustain the only way of life that fishermen like Seye have ever known.