Securing a better future for the oceans and for people

Local fishermen in Joal, express their concerns about the intensifying plunder of their marine resources by placing hand-prints on a large banner reading 'Your voice counts, make it heard now.' To urge politicians to listen to them, rather than favour foreign economic interests and take urgent action. Organised by Greenpeace, the 'My Voice, My Future' caravan documents small-scale fishing communities and the impact of foreign super-trawlers on local fish stocks. 01/16/2012 © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace

Mamadou Sarr is a 54-year old Senegalese artisanal fisherman who has been working at sea for over 36 years. He entered the profession out of his love for fishing and the ocean, and has been supporting a family of eight with his daily catches.

Greenpeace met him at Ouakam, a fishing village on the outskirts of Dakar, where he shared his story with our local activists. “If nothing is done to reverse the negative impacts of foreign vessels in Senegalese waters, I will lose my job”, he said.

Foreign vessels have been plundering the waters of West Africa for decades to stock the fish markets of Europe and Asia. Industrial fishing is depriving West African people of a vital source of protein and pushing thousands of locals into poverty and despair.

To understand the scale of the problem, the Greenpeace ship ‘Artic Sunrise’ sailed the waters off Senegal and Mauritania, in 2010, and documented 126 large fishing vessels and four refrigerated ships used for transporting the catches. It is a continuing problem: last month, Greenpeace exposed Chinese fishing companies which are emptying the seas of fish off Senegal, Guinea and Guinea Bissau.

The question was how to draw attention to the plunder of West African fisheries. Greenpeace Africa, through our office in Dakar, Senegal, built up close relationships with coastal communities and fish workers in the country.

Their stories have proved to be as powerful and inspiring as they have been educational – from their testimonies of the massive change in state of the ocean over the years to their current struggles to support their families. These are stories that deserve to be broadcast far and wide so that what has been out of sight for many people no longer remains out of mind.

Just weeks before 2012’s presidential elections in Senegal Greenpeace organised the “My Voice, My Future” caravan which toured through the country’s main cities and villages to speak with local fishermen and women about sustainable fishing.

Eager to make their voices heard, fishermen and women from all over the country responded to our call, some travelling miles by canoe. Over 6,000 people signed a petition calling on the presidential candidates to support sustainable fisheries.

When the newly elected President Macky Sall revoked the licenses of 29 large foreign trawlers, which together were taking almost half of the country’s catch of pelagic fish, thousands of people took to the streets in celebration. As Greenpeace Africa exposed in a report, the licences had been granted in dubious circumstances by the previous fisheries minister.

Around the world, 12 million people are employed in small-scale fisheries and many of them face challenges similar to the artisanal fisheries in Senegal.

But the problems are by no means confined to developing nations. In Europe for example, small-scale fishing vessels make up 80% of the fleet yet they receive only a fraction of the fishing quota allocation. The overwhelming proportion of the quota, along with millions of Euros in subsidies, goes to large-scale industrial operators.

Small-scale low-impact fishermen use fishing methods that have the least impact on fish populations and the marine environment. Living and working locally, they contribute to the economic and social stability of coastal communities where alternative sources of income are generally limited. Until recently, however, European governments had failed to recognise this advantage as a reason to promote low-impact fisheries.

After a major campaign in alliance with low-impact fishers in Croatia, France, Greece, Romania and Spain, among many other European countries, the reform of the European Common Fisheries Policy adopted in 2014 finally recognised the value of these approaches by agreeing to apply social and environmental criteria when allocating fishing quotas.

Greenpeace UK is now testing this commitment. Small boats in the UK make up almost 80% of the fishing fleet but receive a measly 4% of the fishing quota, which is too small for them to make a living. This imbalance was recently recognised by the UK High Court which gave the green light for a full judicial review into whether the UK fishing quota allocation system is lawful under new European law.

Just as all the world’s oceans are one, the challenges of fishermen and women worldwide are interlinked, as is their future. A win for low-impact workers in the UK fishing industry could have far-reaching consequences for other EU countries. In turn, changes in European fisheries will impact upon the rest of the world.

Undeniably, there is still a long way to go before we can embrace the notion of healthy and vibrant oceans, and it is not only the impacts of fishing that must be brought under control.

From the deepest oceans to the icy waters of the Arctic, governments and corporations are racing to exploit the last living resource, the last drop of oil, the last minerals hidden in the seabed. All while climate change and rising carbon dioxide emissions are pushing ocean ecosystems further towards the brink of destruction.

The science is clear that we urgently need to set aside a global network of large-scale ocean sanctuaries, to allow the oceans the space and time to recover, but still less than 1% of the world’s oceans are fully protected.

In both Senegal and Europe, changes came about because peoples’ voices became so powerful that they could not be ignored. Together, with millions of people across the world who love the oceans, Greenpeace will continue to bring citizen power to the forefront. Together, we can secure healthy oceans and a sustainable and fair future for all who depend on them.

Kumi Naidoo is Executive Director of Greenpeace International.

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post.

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