From the UN to Dakar – seeing the connections firsthand

Jeff Ardron, Director of the Marine Conservation Institute high seas program, reports from Dakar, Senegal as part of his work within the United Nations processes to identify Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas in the marine environment. (All photos by Jeff Ardron)

The work of the United Nations sounds is important, but excruciatingly slow. Many ocean issues at the UN are addressed using consensus, which means that just one nation can block progress until next year’s meeting, by which time you hope it may have softened its position. Often it is the US, Japan or Canada that does the blocking…

While the pace of international negotiations can be agonizingly slow, human activities in the ocean continue to accelerate.  For much of the planet, the overriding goal is to catch fish to keep alive and help support a family.

Last month I travelled to Senegal to wrap up a project to identify gaps in their marine protected area network, and present an overview of the international linkages to help them fill those gaps.

 People sometimes ask me what the connection is between our UN work to protect offshore and deep sea species, and coastal well-being. I saw a perfect example when I visited the fishing village of Kayar, a few hours drive northeast of Dakar. 

The locals explained to me that recently they had been catching species they had not seen in decades, and which they thought only lived offshore, like tuna and sharks. They showed me two porbeagle sharks (“vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List) that had recently been caught on their longlines.

 I noticed right away their fins were still intact! No one had hacked them off to supply shark fins for the international shark fin soup market – because there was no one there to buy them. It is really that simple: there is no market in Senegal for these tasteless things, and because sharks don’t usually get caught inshore there is no export market either.

 So, the fishermen asked, why are more offshore species being caught by small boats in inshore fisheries?

Well, as a scientist, I first rub my chin and admit that it’s hard to say.  But as that I am also a policy guy, the answer seems clear: “Because the Senegalese government  recently cancelled most of the contracts with the foreign trawlers!” Now I can’t prove that… But, for years these foreign trawlers, registered in Europe and Asia, have been dragging gigantic nets back and forth just over the horizon. Each of these ships can catch more than the whole village of Kayar combined. After the foreign trawlers were told to leave, the offshore species have started to reappear in community fisheries, like magic.

It would be great to report that the trawlers were told to leave due to relentless policy advocacy in the UN. Well, that was part of it… but it also came out that during the recent election, the funds collected from these offshore fishing agreements were being used to fund the campaigns of the government of the day… which lost anyhow. Ouch! There went that arrangement –at least for now.

I would like to hope that the ecological advantages can speak for themselves, but politics, greed, and corruption have permeated international fishing so thoroughly that we need stronger instruments to stop this pillage.  Kayar just shows what will happen when fisheries are allowed to benefit local communities, and not just foreign trawler fleets. So back to the UN I go… Wish me the patience of a saint (which I most certainly am not) because we will all benefit when it comes to protecting our high seas and offshore fish.

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