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Sardinella: the dwindling state of a West African staple

ClientEarth Communications

13 October 2023

Sardinella stocks off the coast of West Africa sustain the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities. But this once abundant, small pelagic fish is dwindling. For this story, ClientEarth and Senegalese film director and artist Hamedine Kane have joined forces to interview representatives from fishing communities in Senegal to understand how the disappearance of the sardinella is affecting their social and economic rights.

A vital species on the brink of collapse

The round sardinella (Sardinella aurita) and the flat sardinella (Sardinella maderensis) are emblematic transboundary fish species in West Africa: they migrate across waters, playing a key role in ensuring job and food security across the entire region.

The sardinella fishery represents a means of subsistence for hundreds of thousands of people in the region, contributing significantly to the overall economy and the stability of coastal communities. It provides jobs and represents a significant part of the animal protein consumed by West African populations, especially, but not only, in coastal areas.   

Despite regional and international efforts to manage this fishery, this once abundant fish is quickly decreasing, with serious implications for the social and economic rights of local communities that rely on sardinella for their livelihoods.  

Aerial view of the fishing quarter in Guet N'Dar, Saint-Louis, Senegal
Aerial view of the fishing quarter in Guet N'Dar, Saint-Louis, Senegal © Hamedine Kane

Taking food from people’s plates to feed other fish

West African sardinella is commonly exploited by fishing fleets from around the globe. But it is also impacted by an ever-expanding aquaculture industry. As is the case in the rest of the world, this staple food for West African communities is increasingly converted to fish oil and fish meal to feed farmed salmon and livestock in the EU and Asia. Yearly, this represents over half a million tonne of sardinella and other small fish – which impacts the millions of consumers in the region.

Today, more than 50 processing plants operate along the shores of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and The Gambia. In Senegal alone, it is estimated that eight of these factories have been set up, processing 150 to 300 tonnes of fish per factory per day. This fish meal and fish oil is then exported to the rest of the world. This industry has expanded significantly since 2010 – with Mauritania, Senegal and The Gambia being the main exporters, and the EU being one of the main destinations of these exports. In 2019, the EU was the main destination market of fish oil from Senegal and Mauritania. It is also the third destination market for fishmeal from Senegal, Mauritania and The Gambia behind China and Turkey. Often owned by foreign interests, the businesses involved have put the sardinellas under intense pressure. According to the FAO, “the state of the once abundant species is alarming today."

Women processing sardinella in Guet N'Dar, Saint-Louis, Senegal
Women processing sardinella in Guet N'Dar, Saint-Louis, Senegal © Hamedine Kane

Undersized sardinella as live bait for tuna

Beyond being transformed into fish meal and fish oil, sardinella is also used as live bait for pole and line vessels fishing tuna off the coast of Senegal. This fishing method – which is often considered selective and sustainable – is nonetheless also driving the overexploitation of sardinella stocks as it is increasingly using young sardinella caught in spawning areas to catch tuna.

In the bay of Hann, in Senegal, local canoes called cayucos, have been operating for decades for European pole-and-line vessels in spawning areas. These cayucos are working within the framework of an agreement with EU vessels – mostly from Spain.

According to local fishers who regularly provide sardinella to tuna vessels, many juveniles – undersized fish which have not yet had time to reproduce – are being transhipped on a regular basis from their canoes to be sold to pole and line vessels directly. While these practices are not always legal – they are also wasteful: many sardinella fish die in the process and must be discarded at sea before reaching the pole-and-line vessels.

Children at the beach of Guet N'Dar, Saint-Louis, Senegal
Children at the beach of Guet N'Dar, Saint-Louis, Senegal © Hamedine Kane

The disappearance of sardinella: a threat for the human rights of the whole region

The collapse of sardinella is not only impacting biodiversity, but it is also having wide ranging impacts on several human rights of local communities. In turn, this may represent a legal risk for businesses involved in the overexploitation of this stock.

The constant overfishing of sardinella threatens the food security of a country that relies on fish for 70% of its animal protein. As such, it directly impacts the right to food of local communities. That right is enshrined in the African Charter on Human Rights, to which Senegal is a party, and in several International Conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR creates obligations for countries around the world “to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need”.

This overexploitation also constitutes a possible violation of the right to work of local fishers and women working in the seafood supply chain in Senegal – as recognised for instance in the UDHR. Women are particularly impacted by this crisis, as they historically make up a significant part of the workforce that process the fish. These women are seeing their income and livelihoods affected by this decline. Since processing factories are often owned by foreign companies, foreign exploitation without fair profit-sharing with local communities may violate the right of people to benefit and freely dispose of their natural resources, which is also recognised under the African Charter.

European companies importing fish meal, fish oil, and tuna from this region must be aware that the continued pressure on sardinella stocks may have severe impacts on several human rights of local communities in the region, who depend on this species both for local consumption and as a source of income. To address this risk, it is essential for businesses sourcing from this region to first thoroughly implement traceability, and then establish due diligence processes covering their whole value chain.

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