April 9, 2006

European trawlers threaten Mauritania’s fishermen

By Nick Tattersall

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Harouna Diop remembers the days when
there were only six small wooden fishing boats working the
waters off Nouakchott's barren coastline.

Just hours at sea in one of the richest fishing grounds in
the world were enough to fill the long, brightly-colored
vessels with sardinella, horse mackerel, snapper and tuna.

Nowadays his son can spend a week on the water and still
struggle to catch enough fish to earn a living. He and his
fellow fishermen blame industrial trawlers from Europe, which
they say are sucking up Mauritania's once abundant stocks.

"There were a lot of fish before. Now there are hardly any.
The big nets, the big boats have taken them all. They work
night and day," said Diop, 64, who has worked in Mauritania's
small-scale fishing industry for more than four decades.

"We have to go further to get fish and we can't afford the
fuel," he said, loading a crate of glistening fish on to a

Mauritania's shores, where the Sahara meets the Atlantic,
are home to one of the world's largest concentrations of fish,
crustaceans and molluscs, as well as hammerhead and tiger
sharks, dolphins, turtles and rays.

Despite its natural wealth and population of just three
million, the Islamic republic -- which straddles Arab and black
West Africa -- is one of the world's poorest nations. Almost
two thirds of its people live on less than $2 a day.

Mauritania awards fisheries agreements every five years to
the European Union. The latest deal, which runs out in July,
allows more than 240 foreign vessels into Mauritanian waters.

But the new government -- a group of technocrats installed
after a bloodless coup last August -- says the deal struck by
the former administration sells the country's resources off too
cheaply and threatens the livelihoods of 30,000 people.

"We estimate under the terms of this agreement, European
fishermen catch as much as 600 million euros ($720 million)
worth of fish each year and we receive 96-100 million euros,"
Fisheries Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Sidina told Reuters.

"All of our deep-water potential is fished by the European
Union. We just catch the dregs because our boats are very
outdated and not very effective," he said.


Nouakchott's fishermen say they sell each catch -- roughly
enough fish to fill one of the battered old Peugeot 504s which
ply the route from the beach to the market in the center of
town -- for about 100,000 ouguiya ($370).

Half of that goes on outboard fuel, a bit more on the
transport into town and on food, and the rest is split between
up to 25 crew members in each pirogue -- traditional long, thin
wooden boats painted in bright reds, yellow and greens.

The fishermen's canoe-like boats and simple nets are a
stark contrast to the European vessels working further

Until recently, one of the world's largest fishing vessels
plied the waters off Mauritania, the Irish-owned Atlantic Dawn,
a 64-million-euro trawler-cum-fish-processing-plant that can
store 7,000 tonnes of fish, or enough for 18 million meals.

With 60 crew members on board at any one time, the
144-meter ship has fished off Mauritania for six years,
catching sardines and sardinella. It is known locally as "the
ship from hell."

"We feel we're an easy target -- the big ship looks like
the baddie," said Niall O'Gorman, finance director of Atlantic
Dawn, the holding company that owns the vessel.

"The big ships are just an attempt to be more efficient by
processing at sea and storing the fish in cold storage," he
told Reuters, adding that the vessel was able to process about
300 tonnes of fish per day.


The Atlantic Dawn used to operate under a private agreement
with Mauritania, but since August's coup it had been repeatedly
boarded by the authorities and was now waiting to return under
the protection of the next EU agreement, O'Gorman said.

"We were boarded for the fifth time at the end of one trip
and (accused) of fishing inside an area that wasn't permitted
...There was no appeals procedure so we just paid the fine and
took the vessel away," he said.

The fisherman on Nouakchott's beach are hoping the
country's military junta -- which ended two decades of
authoritarian rule by former President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed
Taya and installed a civilian government -- will do more to win
them a better deal.

"The big boats do not respect the zones they should be in.
There are accidents where the big boats crash into the
pirogues. People have drowned," said Talibouya Tew, 30, as he
helped his colleagues drag their catch-laden vessel on to the

"Now with the changes after the coup, we are hoping things
will improve," he said.

Fisheries Minister Ould Sidina said efforts were being made
with European countries to better regulate vessels operating in
Mauritanian waters, confirming there had been deaths, but added
that there were violations of the zones from both sides.

He sympathized with calls from Nouakchott's fishermen for
European countries to invest in a fishing industry in
Mauritania rather than simply plucking fish from under their
noses, but said the country was some way off being an economic

"We are a people who are very close to nature. We are not a
consumer society," Sidina said, sipping tea in his
modestly-furnished office.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Smith in Dublin)