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close this bookCERES No. 122 (FAO Ceres, 1988, 50 p.)
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Mauritania's reluctant fisherfolk

With a GDP of $420 per caput, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is classified as a middle-income country. Until 1983, most of its foreign currency resources came from its exports of iron, copper, and gypsum. Since the late 1970s, however, the mining industry has been declining in favour of the fisheries, which now provide the country's most abundant resources. This is only a relative abundance, but the Mauritanian Government plans to further the development of the fishing sector.

On its 500 km of Atlantic coastline from Nouadhibou in the north to the banks of the Senegal river in the south, Mauritania has some of the world's richest fishing grounds. FAO estimates the annual potential catch to be 600 000 metric tons, with no risk of depleting the waters: tunas, molluscs, crustaceans, and octopus proliferate in this cold area of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1984, the catch was around $148 million dollars, roughly half the value of all other exports. In 1985, Mauritania exported a record 373 000 tons of fish, bringing in $224 million - a gigantic leap ahead over the $14 million of 1979. The fishing industry's share of the GDP was 11.1 per cent in 1985, an increase from only 6.5 per cent in 1982. These are the results of a successful new fishing policy launched in 1979, with an annual increase rate of I l per cent.

With such encouraging figures, it would be logical to conclude that Mauritania is exploiting its coastal waters and its EEZ with no problems, and that its population, anxious to consume the ocean's plentiful resources, is provided with the noble proteins by sailor-fishermen bound to the sea by an ancient tradition. But this is not so. Mauritanians regard the ocean with mistrust and fishermen with contempt: they shy away from balistes and octopus and are reluctant to set foot on a boat. According to a 1980 survey, the inhabitants of Nouakchott consume 16 kg of fish per caput a year (less than half the 35.4 kg/person/year for the total population of sub-Saharan Africa), against 0.3 kg per caput countrywide. These results indicate that fish consumption is increasing partly because prolonged drought has affected the economy of the nomads, forcing them to settle, and introducing them to new foods through food aid (rations distributed to nomads who flocked to the outskirts of the towns contained dried fish). But today, it is still only the poorest inhabitants of Nouakchott who give a slight preference to fish in their diet. In fact 51.8 per cent of the families with an income of less than FF 1 000 eat more fish than meat. However, since the price of fish is approaching that of mutton, the economic advantage tends to disappear. The Government hopes that its extension campaigns and the expansion of the marketing network toward the hinterland will encourage consumers to eat much more fish.

About 20 years ago, faced with the aversion of the majority of the population to anything concerning the sea, the lack of a maritime tradition, and the failure to form a national fishing fleet in the 1960s, the Government turned to foreign countries and, up to 1979, small foreign (mainly Soviet and Japanese) fleets fished on an industrial scale under licence. Almost the entire catch was, and still is, exported, and the host country thus loses control over a key sector of its economy. For instance, the Mauritanian Government made enormous investments in refrigeration and storage units on the mainland (90 000 and 240 000 metric tons capacity respectively), but overall, they operated to only 15 per cent of their capacity, since nearly all the foreign fishing boats were equipped to refrigerate or freeze the fish on board. The rapid increase of foreign participation in industrial fishing has therefore not led to a comparable increase in the volume of fish processed at Nouadhibou, the heart of the fishing industry.

Under its new fishing policy, in 1979 the Government implemented several measures to "Mauritanianize" the sector in order better to control the exploitation rate of fishery resources and to make them more financially profitable. It decided against granting fishing rights to foreign companies or countries. Since 1980, any foreign firm or national fishing in the Mauritanian EEZ is required to form a semi-public company in which the Mauritanian public or private sector is the major shareholder.

Agreements have been negotiated with more than ten countries, but the largest semi-public companies have been formed with Algeria, Libya, Romania, USSR, and the Republic of Korea.

Any company thus formed must also undertake to construct landbased facilities and train local workers. The law of November 1982 stipulates that all catches from Mauritanian waters must be unloaded for processing and export. Since May 1984, sales and exports theoretically take place through the SMCP (Mauritanian fish marketing company). Today, Mauritania has a fleet of 250 boats, including 66 freezer trawlers and 35 wet fish trawlers.

Crews are a problem. In compliance with the law, half the crew must be Mauritanian, but owner-fishermen respect the law in their own way. They pay a phantom crew that remains on land, and they take Koreans on board. As a result, industrial fisheries that account for 98 per cent of the catch employ only 350 Mauritanians.

Despite the progress made in recent years in fishing catches and financial efficiency, most of the foreign currency revenues go back abroad (about 80 per cent in 1983) where they are used to purchase equipment and for maintenance and labour. All things considered, the contribution of the fishing sector to the budget and to Mauritania's trade balance is still lower than it could be.

The economic and financial adjustment programme for 1985-88 clearly puts the emphasis on small-scale fishing, and it is probable that this policy will continue. The situation is not quite what it seems to be, because Mauritania does have a true smallscale fishery tradition thanks to the Imraguens - thought to be an autochthonous race - who have always fished for mullet eggs (which they press, dry, salt, and sell in a wax coating) and numerous coastal species. They live in villages scattered along the coast from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott. The produce is marketed at Nouadhibou by Thimris, the country's only fishing cooperative (three-quarters of its members are Imraguen), and in Nouakchott by SPPAM (Company for the promotion of small-scale fishing in Mauritania). Some 2 000 fishermen fish from pirogues and lanchas whose engines have been boosted thanks to Japanese and Italian contributions as well as to several UNDP projects. In 1985, the small-scale fishing fleet numbered 325 boats.

Imraguens are not alone in practising small-scale fishing: an equivalent number of Senegalese fish in the same manner in the southern part of the country. Potential small-scale catches in Mauritania are estimated at 90 000 metric tons a year, against the present 15 000 tons. Half this production is consumed locally, and the remainder is exported. It is believed that with adequate equipment, the present catch could be tripled. One of the UNDP projects executed by FAO is of special interest. Its aim is to build and repair fishing boats or canoes and launches and introduce mass production of polyester pirogues and launches. The shipyard has been set up on Nouakchott beach. The project started in 1985 for 22 months and has been extended to the end of 1988.

In 1986, the UNDP/FAO project had already achieved a number of objectives, for instance: the creation of a mobile repair shop; construction and maintenance of some 30 heat-insulated crates to preserve fish on board and for Imraguen communities located far from Nouakchott; training fishermen and ship carpenters. Finally, two improved prototype boats were built: one is a 10-metre semi-decked lancha, a variation of the traditional Canary lancha used by Imraguen fishermen. The ACRN (Naval Construction and Repair Yard) used these timber models to make moulds for mass-produced polyester hulls. However, considerable delay in the allocation of funds caused mass production to be postponed. These difficulties were overcome with an extraordinary UNDP-OSRO contribution (made by Indonesian rice growers to FAO in 1986) and with the unfreezing of financing by the Saudi Development Fund, whose delay threatened to compromise this fundamental phase of the ACRN operation. In late 1987, ten boats were built (including three complete boats fitted with Italian engines). The final ACRN output (38 motor boats with a polyester hull) should be ready by the end of 1988.

The retail price of a lancha made by ACRN in $30 000, that of a pirogue $25 000. It is therefore obvious that only rich businessmen, traders and the like, can afford them. But such wealth is not rare in Mauritania, and the boats built under this project are selling like hotcakes. Private shipowners take on Imraguen crews and have an equal share in the sale of the catch.

This motorized fishing industry is considered a small-scale enterprise because it takes place on a day-today basis, close to the coast, using small boats. However, the production is intended for export, which is more profitable than the local market. Today, for instance, there is a boom in octopus sales: 3 500 metric tons purchased by Japanese clients after the product has been frozen at Nouadhibou.

It is encouraging to see that small scale fishing does not rely on international projects and that local initiative is important. A UNDP/FAO mission observed that the fishermen have mastered the use of octopus pots to compete with industrial fishing. They have the same success with lobster fishing. Local initiative is not restricted to fishing alone; it also extends to training and recruiting new fishermen. For instance, the UNDP/FAO mission reports that Imraguen fishermen and Ndiagos recruit and provide on-the-job training for many youngsters from Nouakchott and from the vicinity of the Senegal River.

It is not clear what will happen to the ARCN operation when the project closes at the end of 1988. For the time being revenues from boat sales go into a revolving fund managed by UNDP, used to purchase equipment and to pay the 30 workers employed in the shipyard. After UNDP pulls out, the yard will be privatized: several potential buyers have already expressed their interest in the deal, a sure sign that they consider it a profitable business.

Armelle Braun