African Voices tour diary: fishermen bring their mission to the UK

Posted by Alicia C — 27 May 2011 at 9:41am - Comments
Celestino Oliveira, Abdou Karim Sall and Issa Moustapha Diop meet fishing commun
All rights reserved. Credit: © Francisco Rivotti / Greenpeace
Celestino Oliveira, Abdou Karim Sall and Issa Moustapha Diop meet fishing communities in Penzance

Last week, three African fishermen - Karim of Senegal, Celestino of Cape Verde and Issa of Mauritania - were in the UK for the African Voices tour to deliver an urgent message: that EU fleets must stop stealing fish from African Waters.

In Europe, the tour shared their struggles with EU Fisheries minister Maria Damanaki amongst others. For the last leg in the UK, our trio spoke to ministers in London about urgent reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), met fishmongers at Billingsgate Market and then traveled to the south west to find camaraderie with fellow small-scale fishermen in Newlyn, Cornwall.

Here are the highlights of their week:

Monday: Meeting with the minister 

We dived straight in on our first day, meeting with fisheries minister Richard Benyon. Our guests gave a powerful testimony to the minister, who was visibly moved by their stories.

Karim spoke of the "catastrophe" that is occurring in Senegal as a result of overfishing. “People used to eat three times a day. Now they are lucky to eat once a day,” he said.

Benyon assured our guests that DEFRA’s policy will be “to put pressure on the European Commission to make sure that these [external fishing] agreements are based on the principle of sustainability.”

He recognised that the failings of the CFP aren’t just an environmental issue, but a human one too, and he told us he would take the fishermen’s evidence direct to the commission.

Tuesday: Face to face with the fishmongers

Our fishermen were shocked by the expensive price of species found in their waters here in the UK, and found it hard to stomach just how much the European sector profits from West African marine resources.

Local industry is simply unable to enjoy the same economic opportunities as their European counterparts, with local communities struggling to feed their families.

After scrubbing the pervasive smell of fish from our shoes, we headed to the glamour of Selfridges, where our guests participated in a panel discussion as part of Project Ocean.

On stage they joined representatives from the Pacific and the UK, and the three spoke of the food security risks inherent in unsustainable fishing.

By engaging with a retailer as influential as Selfridges, we sent a clear message: it’s not just the politicians who have a responsibility to bring change – retailers, industry, the public and us all have a part to play.

Wednesday with Willie Bain

Many fishing tales were told over the previous few days, but sadly none of them happy ones. On Wednesday, Celestino told environment shadow minister Willie Bain  how tuna fishing has changed in Cape Verde as a result of the giant trawlers moving in:

“Up until the 1990s, we’d go no further than 500 metres from shore, and simply pick out the tuna we wanted, they were so plentiful. We could fish for tuna seven months of the year and in one or two hours we had all we needed.

"Now, there are few tuna.

"The fishermen need motors on their small boats, as they are forced to travel over 20 miles out to sea. They need five or more days to catch one tuna, weighing only 20 or 30 kg”.

Sometimes the men don’t return at all. Many are lost to the sea, vulnerable in their ill-equipped boats which are dwarfed by the open ocean. Last year, 139 fishermen were lost in Senegal, and that was a "good year" according to Karim.

Bain assured us he would write to Richard Benyon and to the European Commission, urging them to take the fishermen’s evidence into account under the CFP reform.

Friday: From Cape Verde to Cornwall

On Thursday we made the long journey to Cornwall. Our friends were in good spirits, as was the rest of our team. Celestino joked that the trip was so long that we must have been going to Cape Verde.

Friday saw another early start as we visited the Newlyn fish market to greet local handline fishermen as they returned from a morning of sustainable mackerel fishing.

Issa, Abdou and Celestino were in their element and found it remarkable to see how small-scale fishing in Cornwall was "different, but the same" to their own. When we spoke with local small-scale fishers about the threats posed to their livelihoods by factory trawlers, the similarities were uncanny.

After some fascinating discussions in Sennen Cove, a true artisanal fishermen’s haven, we settled into the Fishermen’s Mission in Newlyn for a meeting with local fisherfolk, their community and Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP.

Again, despite the geographical difference, it became apparent that West African and UK small-scale fishermen share common bonds, and there was a sense of solidarity in the room.

George remarked on the “important parallels between the experience of the West African fishermen and the position of communities here [in Cornwall],” and offered his support in achieving necessary reform.

An urgent plea

It’s ironic that despite its poverty, West Africa is feeding Europe and going without protein on its own plates. Europeans don’t need this fish to keep their bellies full, but the West African communities do.

Issa makes a impassioned plea to the EU – and us: “Before it comes to a point where you have to send us food to survive, we must solve this problem”.

The situation is desperate, but he remains hopeful. He believes Europe has the power to put an end to overfishing and to shape a future with sustainable fisheries, livelihoods and communities.

To achieve this the UK must be a progressive leader on reform of the CFP. The African Voices tour has provided crucial testimony from those fishermen whose communities are dangerously threatened by the current system. And Greenpeace will continue working to ensure their voices are taken into account by decision-makers.

Read more about the African Voices and Greenpeace's work on oceans:

About Alicia - Oceans Team

I'm a recent addition to the Oceans Team where I'm working on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy - in particular the impact of European's external fleet on some of the poorest non-EU nations.

twitter @LeeshC

Follow Greenpeace UK