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Reportage. The town on the sand on the edge of Senegalese capital Dakar enjoys wide autonomy in governance and religion. But traditional ways are changing as industrial overfishing has wreaked havoc on the local economy.

In Yoff, it’s the same beach, different sea

The beach in Yoff, a district of Dakar, is a huge carpet of sand stretching for miles and miles. It is said that, at one point, “it stretched up to Mauritania,” says Philippe, a Frenchman who has lived in Yoff for 10 years and owns a beachside restaurant.

While Yoff is technically part of the capital city, it enjoys certain administrative autonomy. But, above all, it has cultural, economic and religious factors that make it different from the rest of Dakar. It is the main village of the Lebu ethnicity, a culture of fishermen, which today faces hardship due to international fisheries agreements that are depleting the West African seas, pushing many fishermen to pull up their oars.

The Lebu are mostly fishermen who speak a dialectical form of Wolof — the most spoken language in Senegal — and most of them are Sunni Muslims of the Layene Brotherhood. Right here, in 1884, Seydina Mouhammadou Limamou Laye founded the fourth Muslim Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the country, called Layene, after the Xaadir, Tijaniyyah and Muridi brotherhoods (the latter the most active and powerful of the country). The adherents of this sect, however, have a few different rites: During the ablutions, they wash up to the knees, and on Dec. 25 they celebrate the birth of Christ with religious ceremonies. It is not unusual to quote Bible passages during prayers.

The religious leader of the sect is the Caliph, who remains in office until his death. The Senegalese Constitution grants special autonomy to this brotherhood, including a theocratic form of government in this town. In fact, alcohol is banished within the boundaries of Yoff.

The village is built on sand, and the houses lean on one another. Small alleys lead to the beach, to the ocean, the westernmost point of the African continent. On the huge beach, there is frantic activity of around 100 boats. Azibo, 40, emigrated to France 10 years ago and is now on holiday at his home here at Yoff.

“Back then, I also was a fisherman, but it was different. See, I became a fisherman because my dad was a fisherman, and because we Lebu have always done it,” says Azibo, sitting in one of the many sheds that provide shade and a respite to the fishermen on the coast. “No one owned the boats. But we could all use one because Yoff was divided into communities, each of which collectively owned a fishing vessel.”

Even today, this community sense is evident when a boat comes back from fishing and dozens of people go toward the fishermen to help them get the boat dry, using large rusty cylinders to run the pirogue up the shore.

But this is changing, too. “The community is disintegrating,” says Azibo, grief-stricken. In fact, now the boats are becoming private. “During eight years of work in Italy, I put aside some money, so I could come home and buy my boat,” says Mouhamed, another fisherman.

Azibo was forced to leave Senegal because of the large foreign fishing vessels, which have delivered a hard blow to traditional fishing. “Some time ago, we could find the good fish in a short period of time,” Azibo says, playing with the net on which we are sitting. “But today we have to go several miles into the sea. It is very risky, and there are less fish. So I left, I could no longer live a dignified life with a fishing income.”

Industrial fishing has caused dramatic changes to environments and economies, as highlighted by Greenpeace’s latest report, pointing to China and, in particular, against CNCF, the China National Fisheries Corporation. The number of large Chinese fishing boats went from 13 in 1985 to more than 600 today. The report denounces the systematic use of illegal fishing methods, unrecorded catches, and the use of trawling nets that are devastating the diversity and abundance of marine fauna.

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“The amazing thing is the constant use of two weights, two metrics when it comes to Africa,” says Ahmed Diamé, a Greenpeace activist in Senegal. “Europe and China are limiting fishing practices that damage the environment in their territorial waters, but, in Africa, they continue to use them widely.”

The report denounces 183 documented cases of improper practices in Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone, carried out by Chinese vessels during the periods of 2000-2006 and 2011-2013. But no governments protested because China is a vital investor in scores of infrastructure projects. Including here in Senegal.

In 2015, Senegal signed with Europe a five-year “sustainable” fisheries agreement. According to the institutional website of the European Commission, it would seem the agreement was blessed by environmentalists, fauna protectors and local fishermen. But the story is more complex: The first agreement came into force from 1979 to 2006. Until the 1990s, there was fish for everyone. Then, around the year 2000, local fishermen began to notice that in order to find a good catch, they had to travel up to 40 kilometers, at significant cost. The European fishing vessels were beginning to destroy the Senegalese seas.

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In Senegal, the fisheries sector employs 600,000 people; across all of Europe, it employs only 139,000. Therefore, it is a crucial sector for the country’s economy. So, in 2006, the government suspended fishing concessions and started new negotiations with Europe. Since January 2015, an agreement has entered into force, which will bring €14 million into the Senegalese treasury. There is a ceiling of tons of tuna and cod that can be caught, together with a program of investments in oceanographic research in Senegal.

However, Adama Lam, the chairman of Gaipes, the Senegal Fisheries Shipowners and Industrialists, strongly criticized the agreement in an interview with Reuters. “We are selling our fish resources; this is just the recolonization of the fish sector by the E.U.” Greenpeace is also critical, saying local fishermen’s associations were not included in the negotiations.

In the meantime, the fish market across Yoff continues its business, dirty and frantic as usual. Children and teenagers, unaware of all of this, play soccer on the beach. When the sea reaches low tide, the drift becomes a huge soccer field of hundreds of kids, one after the other for miles. The heads of players become darting dots on the horizon.

“Since there are no sports facilities in town, the beach is our gym, our camp. It’s everything,” says a boy while kicking away. Facing the ocean leading straight to America, the beach allows the kids to get out of Dakar’s chaos and find some peace. A beach that means a lot to the Lebus in Yoff.

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