Senegalese move from fishing to sea farming
January 21, 2016
ori Lewis writes that in Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, the age-old profession of fishing is giving way to catching a specific kind of red seaweed, Meristotheca senegalensis, that flourishes in Ngor’s Bay and during a certain time of year washes up on the sand. But what washes up is just a portion of what can be found in the sea. So locals started diving for that too, noticing where it grew in large quantities. “Wherever you find rocks, there will be seaweed,” said former local fisherman Thierno Mbengue.
When the seaweed season arrives, and if there is a buyer, the whole village of Ngor mobilizes to collect the stuff – not just divers, but also children and market women who gather seaweed from the sand. “You have to wake up early in the morning to do it, because if you wait other people will collect all of the seaweed,” said Mr. Mbengue. He says that he works with his brothers to dive for the seaweed in a group. That way they can maximize their efforts and take back more to the shore. But wild seaweed, like most wild things, comes in unpredictable quantities. When Mbengue heard that you could farm it, he understood the advantages right away.
The conceptual road to seaweed farming began not in the ocean but in the laboratory. Mr. Mbengue first learned about seaweed farming just a couple of years ago from Moussa Yagame Bodian, a plant biologist at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University.
Dr. Bodian has long been interested in macroalgae, the kinds that grow in the ocean like weeds and whose forms are as numerous as can be imagined: some with broad leaves like lettuce and others full of fine, stringy tendrils. He says that he has never heard of his Senegalese ancestors using seaweed in their culinary traditions. However, he likes to remind people here that seaweed is versatile and can be used in cosmetics or as a food additive or, yes, eaten directly for its health benefits and taste. Meristotheca senegalensis, for example, was first harvested here to make carrageenan, an additive that shows up in everything from soy milk to toothpaste. But a second wave of exporters started sending it to Japan where it is known as tosaka nori and eaten like salad.
Dr. Bodian said he first started studying seaweed in the mid to late 1990s, just after a long period of expansion in Senegal’s fishing industry. “When we got interested in seaweed, it was a time when the fishing industry was just starting to suffer a little,” he said. “Before, there was an enormous amount of fish. No one thought that there could ever be a problem in terms of biomass. We just couldn’t imagine it. But it has happened.”
Scientists say the fishery here peaked during the late 1990s, worn out after decades of ever-increasing catches from the legal industrial trawlers and illegal pirate fishing boats working offshore, plus the tens of thousands of small-scale fishers working, well, everywhere. At the same time, a series of environmental challenges sprung up: Cities along the littoral expanded, and so did the pollution authorities discharged directly into the ocean; trawlers disturbed sensitive ecosystems; mangroves were cut down; and coastlines eroded. The fishing industry in Senegal entered a period of slow decline, a period it is still in today despite all the efforts to rehabilitate it. That means not everyone who wants to can make a living from the ocean as they once did.
What is happening in Senegal is a part of a global downward trend for marine fisheries. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that worldwide, fishers are harvesting nearly 30 percent of fish stocks at levels so unsustainable that they may eventually lead to collapse. In parts of West Africa, the specter of collapse is an issue that hits people both in their pocketbooks and on their plates. Fish provide 44 percent of the animal protein that people in Senegal eat, because it has traditionally been both cheap and abundant. And that wealth of fish has benefitted more than just the people of coastal Senegal; traders come from as far away as Mali and Burkina Faso to export fish to their landlocked countries.
For those fishers who do want to quit or even just fish less, Dr. Bodian thinks seaweed could be part of the solution. “We think that seaweed collection and, eventually, seaweed farming could help coastal communities have an alternative source of revenue,” he said.