Recently, we have seen a video posted on social media by Gambia Environmental Alliance showing countless dead fish washed ashore in the southern coastal fishing communities of Gunjur and Sanyang respectively, prompting concerned Gambians and other environmental groups calling for urgent need to address over-exploitation of the marine resources. Concerns raised have been the damage of the marine environment of the country as a result of illegal fishing practices resulting to bycatch incidents as well as pollution.
As a marine biologist in the country, I want to share with the general public detailing how in general our marine ecosystem is managed including knowledge of our fisheries sector, otherwise, we will be always sending out wrong or misleading information. Yes, dead fish were washed ashore in those aforementioned fishing villages but what must have caused them is the big question.
To begin with, the Northwest Africa region of the Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem (CCLME) has exceptional natural conditions which support a diverse fisheries resource base. This system is strongly influenced by the Canary current that flows along the Northwest African coast from North to South between 30oN and offshore to 20oW. The productivity of this region is further enhanced by influxes of nutrients from the adjoining rivers/estuaries in the sub-region which are transported throughout the water column due to the very active upwelling system prevailing in the area.
The Gambia, with a territorial sea extending to 12 nautical miles and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles lies within this fisheries resource’s rich region. The marine fisheries waters of the country are nourished by vast influxes of nutrients from the Gambia River thus offering one of the richest fishing grounds in the world in terms of abundance and diversity of fish species.
Our fisheries waters is characterised by marine waters, brackish waters and freshwater regimes which corresponds with the three (3) Fishery Administrative Areas of the country namely, the Atlantic/Marine Coast Stratum, the Lower River Stratum and the Upper River Stratum. For the purpose of this write-up, concentration is geared towards the Atlantic/marine coast stratum which is where the subject of this piece is centered on.
Fisheries sector potentials
Given its enormous potential, this sector plays a significant role in the socio-economic development of the country by improving the nutritional standards through the provision of fish protein, employment creation and revenue generation for fishing communities and the nation as a whole. The recognition of these intentions and the sustenance of a healthy and balanced ecosystem depend on a judicious management, rational and sustainable production methods and efficient utilization of existing, perceived to be abundant, fish stocks.
Two types of fisheries operate in the Gambia; artisanal (small scale) and industrial fisheries. These fisheries are notable by their mode of operation. The industrial fishery sector is regarded as high capital investment and limited to the marine area (from 9 nautical miles and above) while the artisanal fishery is dispersed and characterized by low capital investment and Labour-intensive activities. The artisanal sub-sector is the major supplier of food fish for the Gambian population and a source of raw fish materials for the fish processing establishments in the country. This sub-sector is dominated by non-nationals, especially Senegalese using predominantly plank-dugout canoes that can be seen in the fishing communities of Barra, Banjul, Bakau, Brufut, Tanji, Sanyang, Gunjur and Kartong. The artisanal fishery is not restricted to the 9 nautical mile limit and there are no closed areas or seasons, however, there are restrictions on gear, mesh size and minimum fish size.
Status of the Fisheries Resource Base
It is quite important to note here that the fish species in our waters are classed as demersal and pelagic. The demersal fish class has a wide and diverse range of species including cephalopods (cuttlefish and octopus), crustaceans (shrimps and lobsters) and finfish (groupers, sea breams, grunts, croakers, and snappers, etc). The pelagic fish category includes large and small pelagic fish and is the dominant catch in the artisanal fishery sub-sector supplying the Gambian market for our daily consumption as well as fishmeal factories for fish meal and oil productions. The main small pelagic fish species include shads (Bonga), two sardinellas (Saridnella aurita and Sardinella maderensis), horse mackerels, anchovies, catfish, barracuda etc and the most important fishing gears employed are encircling/surround gillnet and set/bottom gillnet. Similarly, these species are highly migratory and are shared between Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and The Gambia, thus, their conservation become a challenge when other countries are exploiting them. Therefore, precautionary measures are quite relevant because research have shown that this fish stocks are fully or overexploited while in some, there is lack of data to indicate its status.
What must have caused the wash of dead fish onshore?
The Gambia’s artisanal fishery sub-sector is open access fishery where there is no limit on the number of operators and boats. In such instances, the fishery is likely to suffer what is known as the “tragedy of commons” because these fishermen have access to the public resource (also called a common) and in their own interest, would deplete the resource. Open access is the greatest single problem in artisanal fisheries management in which no individual in the sector has exclusive property rights. Each individual is motivated to compete for a maximum share of the common resource with little incentive to practice conservation. For instance, a fisher leaving a fish in the sea for tomorrow simply gives his competitors a chance to catch that fish today and this is exactly what is happening in our artisanal sector. Foreign nationals who would come, fish and sell their catch to fish processing establishments who would operate on a quota system to produce the desired fishmeal or oil. The remaining of the catch are then sold to middlemen (bana-banas) for our daily consumption and in most cases, there are left-overs which could not be sold. So, these foreign fishermen would discard/dump these unsold fish in the sea instead of returning home with product. Since the artisanal boats normally do not have the capacity to carry ice onboard, it is obvious that unsold fish products would begin to deteriorate and loose value, which justify the dumping and their subsequent washing ashore.
It is high time that the legislation governing artisanal fisheries be reviewed with a view to regulating it and moving it away from traditional open access to restricted entry where the number of operators or gears is restricted to control the amount of fishing effort
In tandem with WTO recommendation to curtail provision of subsidies in the fisheries sector, all fisheries authorities should adhere to this as it is in line with sustainable development goal 14 where target 14.6 works on prohibiting subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from new such subsidies.