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How foreign overfishing is driving migration crisis in Senegal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When I was in the Senegalese fishing town of Kayar, on the west coast of Africa a few months ago, I sat at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean with a fisherman named Serigne Mou Diop.

(Speaking Wolof).

SHAPIRO: "This time of year, we used to catch lots of sardines," he told me. "Now, it's been 10 years since we've seen them."

When fishermen in a fishing town can't make a living, they often look abroad for opportunities. Today at npr.org, we've launched a sweeping project where you can take the journey many men like him make, traveling from Senegal to Morocco to Spain. Some of our reporting relies on research by environmental scientist Dyhia Belhabib, whose work focuses on illegal fishing.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DYHIA BELHABIB: Hello.

SHAPIRO: So many fishermen in Senegal told me they'd seen catches plummet in the last 10 or 20 years, and they blamed what they called foreign trawlers from China or Europe. What does that phrase actually mean? Who are these foreign trawlers?

BELHABIB: Foreign trawlers are basically big boats, massive boats, some of which are the same size as a soccer field, for reference, that come in from other countries and catch the same fish than these Senegalese fishermen do. So in essence, they're basically competing for the same fish.

SHAPIRO: And the coastlines in Senegal are filled with wooden boats called pirogues, which people go out to catch fish every day. Can you give us a sense of how much fish a pirogue can catch compared to a trawler?

BELHABIB: Let's just say that these pirogues are very, very small compared to these trawlers, and they can basically catch 300 times higher than all the pirogue can catch.

SHAPIRO: Three hundred times?

BELHABIB: Yes. So a trawler can basically catch the same amount of fish than a pirogue could catch in one year.

SHAPIRO: A year versus...

BELHABIB: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Like, one fishing trip.

BELHABIB: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Now, countries in West Africa have signed fishing agreements with foreign governments. So are these foreign trawlers operating legally or illegally?

BELHABIB: Well, it depends, because there are some trawlers that operate completely legally. There are some trawlers that are authorized to fish there, but they still kind of do not comply with the regulations that are meant for sustainability. And then you have trawlers that operate completely illegally despite the existence of agreements with other countries.

SHAPIRO: What does illegal fishing look like? How does that actually happen?

BELHABIB: There are lots of types of illegal fishing. So inherently, you have a trawler that is not authorized to fish within these waters that comes in, which we call an incursion, takes fish away and leaves. And that is with no authorization and no knowledge of the local authorities. And you have others that are authorized, but they may use a different gear. They may go into what we call an artisanal zone, which is a restricted area for the artisanal sector, and fish there, which is still illegal fishing. And yet they still have an authorization to fish. So it's a matter of you having a driving license, if you will, but then drinking and driving. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The boats that these fishermen use to catch their fish are the same boats, in many cases, that migrants use to make the journey to Europe. And so many people told us about European patrols in Senegalese water to stop those pirogues from leaving - Spanish military boats actually intercepting these pirogues. Why hasn't the international community put the same effort into protecting the fisheries so that some of these people in Senegal might be able to stay where they are?

BELHABIB: It's ironic - isn't it? - because they take their fish away, but they are not taking their people in there. So as we often say, fish does not need a visa. In this particular case, the migrations, or the illegal migrations, affect Europe, but the fish that is going in there, albeit illegally sometimes, does not have the same impact, au contraire.

SHAPIRO: Environmental scientist Dyhia Belhabib, thank you so much.

BELHABIB: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Her research helped inform our immersive digital project following the journey from Senegal to Morocco to Spain, which you can find at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.