As Senegal’s Fish Stocks Collapse, Women Are More Vulnerable Than Ever

On the coast of Senegal, fish stocks have fallen by 80 percent in the past year alone. The women fish processors of the region have been hit hardest, with worrying consequences for food security and nutrition.

Written by Lucia Benavides Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Fishers unload the day’s catch at the Guet N’Dar quay in Saint-Louis, Senegal.Zach Campbell

SAINT-LOUIS, Senegal – Fatou Binetou Sarr sits, arms crossed and lips pursed, looking on as fishermen bring in the day’s catch. She’s with a group of women, all wearing long, colorful dresses with matching headscarves and bright gold earrings. They’re quick to point out that today they’re not working – because there is not enough fish coming in off the boats.

“Why do you think we’re dressed so nicely?” Sarr asks. On the days they work, she implies, they don’t wear anything so fine.

All around them is a bustling scene. The Senegalese beach is full of people talking, children chasing each other and goats bleating. There are about a dozen colorful wooden boats, called pirogues, docked close to shore; some women stand waist-deep in the water, negotiating with the fishermen. They’ll be selling fresh fish at the market later that afternoon. Men in waterproof gear carry buckets of fish on their heads up to refrigerated trucks waiting to hoard off the catch to various destinations.

But Sarr and the other women in her group have to wait. They are the town’s fish processors who descale, boil, dry and salt the fish. The result, a stiff and brown-ish version of what was once a flailing fish, is used to spice up meals or provide an important backup when fresh fish is not available. Processed fish can keep for months and is five times cheaper than fresh, though with a lower nutritional value.

Fatou Sarr explains the importance of preserved fish for people’s diets in Senegal. Women like Sarr are fighting to maintain their livelihood as fish processors despite a precipitous drop in stocks. (Zach Campbell)

The processers aren’t able to buy their share of fish until the evening, when it’s less fresh and the price is cheaper – if there’s enough left. Yet it’s these women who are fighting hardest to save the life-blood of Saint-Louis. Through women’s associations, they are demanding more investment from NGOs and the Senegalese government, and sharing funds to help each other buy the increasingly expensive fish.

Dwindling Fish Stocks

Big catches are becoming increasingly rare in Saint-Louis. Stocks in this major fishing hub on the border of Senegal and Mauritania had been dwindling in the past 10 years, but 2017 was a disaster. Stocks collapsed by 82 percent in that year alone.

“If women don’t work, people don’t eat.”

While it’s not clear what caused the precipitous drop last year, a combination of climate change, increased competition, fishing territory disputes with Mauritania and industrial foreign fleets illegally fishing off the coast have led to the overall decline. Rising sea levels and warmer water temperatures have caused fish to either fall in number or migrate north. As a result, malnutrition is rampant in many parts of the country – the World Food Program estimates 17 percent of Senegal’s population suffers from food insecurity.

Because fresh fish doesn’t keep long, processed fish is being consumed more and more – it can keep for up to six months. That’s extremely important for interior villages, which are themselves struggling with the effects of climate change on growing crops and raising livestock. Sarr says 70 percent of the fish processed in Saint-Louis is shipped to landlocked communities.

“If women don’t work, people don’t eat,” Sarr says. “The interior communities and countries rely on the fish that’s caught and processed here.”

A History of Solidarity

Like most other fish processors, Sarr learned the trade from her mother. She was 7 years old when she started helping around the processing plant. Today, she is the president of the Female Processors Association in Saint-Louis, a position her mother also held.

The women pool their money together to buy fish by the crate, process it together and split the profit – money that, when it doesn’t go toward their children’s education and healthcare, is used to buy the next load of fish. Sarr says that today, they pay about 15,000 CFA francs ($28) for a crate. A couple of years ago, the same crate cost just $5.

A visit to the processing plant lays bare the damage done to the women’s livelihoods by the declining stocks. What was once a crowded place full of women working side by side now looks more like a graveyard. The outdoor roofed area is full of hollow pots of clay, empty sacks of salt and rusty drying racks. Only one woman is seen rummaging through the pots, looking for processed fish to buy and take back to her hometown. She says she traveled 95 miles this morning and will return in the evening, probably empty-handed.

A fish processing center in Saint-Louis, Senegal, lies empty for lack of work. (Zach Campbell)

When Women Are Left Behind

Khady Sané Diouf works with female fish processors through COMFISH (Collaborative Management for a Sustainable Fisheries Future), a project funded by USAID. “Women are very vulnerable because of climate change, and also because of bad living conditions, which all makes them have less revenue than they did before,” she says. “If the fishermen bring in less fish, that impacts our food security. That’s certain. The women who depended on those fish will sell less, and they’ll process less too, or not at all.”

“If the woman isn’t doing well financially, it’s the whole family, the whole nation, that won’t do well.”

COMFISH organizes workshops with women across Senegal to educate them on how to generate the highest profit with the fish they have available. There, the women learn to read and write, integrate technology into their work and find new ways to sell their product. The organization also helps women work on alternative projects to earn money on the side, like gardening and making artisanal jewelry.

She says the Senegalese government isn’t doing enough to support the women. While COMFISH has built processing plants with modern equipment – their goal is to have more hygienic workspaces – the organization’s work isn’t enough to sustain the entire population. Among the women’s list of needs is increased state funding to put into their workspaces. Diouf says the state sometimes turns to them for guidance on how to better serve the women, but the money coming in isn’t nearly enough.

“I’m very proud of my work. If we can add value to it, the men will come back, and we’ll bring back the jobs.”

Sarr believes that investing in the women’s work will help boost the local economy for everyone, not just those in the fishing industry.

“I’m very proud of my work. If we can add value to it, the men will come back, and we’ll bring back the jobs,” she says, referring to the large numbers of Senegalese men who have migrated to Europe in search of better job opportunities.

“If we had fish, if we had resources, they would have never left.”

This project has been funded by the European Journalism Centre (EJC) via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.

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