in Mauritania, the fishing sector caught in the mesh of the coronavirus

The port of Nouadhibou, Mauritania, in April 2018.

A cool breeze sweeps the deserted docks. In the port of Nouadhibou, where thousands of canoes piled up against each other are lined up, night falls quickly. “At this hour, most boats should still be at sea, explains a fishmonger, arranging boxes of octopus. It’s the worst fishing season I have ever had. “

A boat docks. Its cargo is unloaded on carts pulled by tired donkeys. In the crates, there are a few dozen bars and sars, but the count is not there. Last night, Youssoupha Sow left for sea around 3 a.m. The red eyes of the young fisherman betray his fatigue. His disappointment too. “With the small amount of fish that we bring back and the gasoline that we have to pay for, we will still lose money …”, he laments.

Theupwelling, an oceanographic phenomenon which makes these coasts of northern Mauritania one of the most fish-rich areas in the world, does not prevent fishermen from dragging their spleen on the quays of Nouadhibou, the economic capital. Since March, the Covid-19 has affected the artisanal and industrial fisheries that support the 70,000 inhabitants of the city. “At the moment, there are ten times fewer canoes going out to sea than usual, assures Mohamed El Mokhtar, a fisherman for twenty years. I thought about quitting but I have to support my family. “

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It is too early to say how many canoeists, fishermen, sailors, wholesalers or intermediaries have already turned their backs on the sea, but at a time when the fishermen’s wives lay out the day’s fish on colored mats and the porters are slip by in a merry crowd, the quays of Nouadhibou are almost silent.

The “Corona”, as everyone calls it here, affected 7,600 people in Mauritania and left 163 dead. This can be explained in particular by the curfew at 6 p.m. and the ban on movement between regions, measures taken from the start of the epidemic. But the impact on the Mauritanian economy is colossal, especially on fishing, which accounts for 40% of exports.

“Everything stopped overnight”

This is almost a textbook case on the effects of globalization: the sudden drop in the standard of living of families in the Mauritanian desert can be explained by … the decline in tourism in Spain.

Caught with hooks or traps, octopus, whose annual production varies between 800,000 and 1.2 million tonnes, is the flagship product of Mauritanian fishing. Part of its production is shipped to Japan but especially to Spain, where tourism collapsed by 76% in the first half of 2020, leading to the closure of thousands of hotels, bars and restaurants. “Pulperias”, these restaurants in Galicia where tentacles are savored “À la gallega”, with a pinch of paprika and a drizzle of olive oil.

“In mid-March, everything stopped overnight”, remembers Jamila Belkhadir, director of the Atlantic Craft Products Cooperative (CPAA), a factory specializing in the processing and freezing of octopus: “My main Spanish buyer returned the fish to me because he knew he couldn’t sell the goods and pay me. It was a terrible shock! “

This drop in demand led to a collapse in prices. Before March 15, a tonne of octopus was trading around 6,200 euros. From April, it plunged to 3,700 euros. “I first lowered my production so that the product was not stored in too large quantities and its quality depreciated, explains Jamila Belkhadir. On April 30, I made the decision to close the factory and only reopened it in August, timidly, by imposing quotas on my fishermen – something I had never done in thirty-two years – and focusing mainly on the Japanese market. But I have no visibility for the future. “

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In the spring, the boats first remained docked because of the collapse of the yards. Then the closing of the borders came to add its consequences. “The spare parts for our boats, which were to come from Europe and the United States, could not arrive because there were no more planes”, explains Aziz Boughourbal, managing director of SEPH, a company specializing in the production of pelagic fish (sardines, mackerel, etc.): “As China was no longer exporting, empty containers were no longer returning to Africa and the fishmeal made in our factories remained stored here. ” In the midst of this slump, the price of freight then increased as shipping became scarce.

A recovery plan of 520 million euros

Yacoub El Namy has a heavy heart. When he looks out the window of the meeting room of his company, Star Fish, Mauritanian leader in the marketing of seafood products, he sees his three 23-meter coastal boats immobilized since March in the artisanal port.

“The captains and mechanics of these vessels were stuck in Spain and Portugal, the fishermen in Senegal, and anyway we had no more customers,” he exposes, shaking his head, as if to deny this reality: “In the first eight months of 2020, we achieved only 20% of sales for the previous year. But the salaries were paid because the Mauritanian banks continued to support us. “

In early September, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani announced a recovery plan of 520 million euros, 18% of which must go to the fishing sector. “Fishing is suffering but we have to wait until the end of the year to be able to quantify the losses, indicates to World Africa Abdel Aziz Ould Dahi, Minister of Fisheries. There are economic and also social consequences, since companies have put their employees on technical unemployment, which has necessarily had an impact on the standard of living of artisanal fishermen. But the state has made efforts to cover water and electricity bills for the most disadvantaged. “

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After the price of octopus collapsed, many fishermen went into debt with shopkeepers in Nouadhibou to buy basic necessities. Sugar, rice or tea. Over the months, the slates have grown in the shops of the city center, to the point of putting in difficulty their managers or owners, these men who regularly send money to their own families in Zouerate, Choum and Tergit, towns or oases of the Mauritanian desert.

“Right now everyone is sad, but out of modesty we don’t say anything, says Souleymane, a 52-year-old fisherman. Some people try to sell their nets and their canoes, but it is very hard because we have a strong link with the sea. Fishing is in us and we do not give up like that. “ However, at the beginning of October, when the biological rest of the cephalopod fishing, which lasts two months, began, hundreds of fishermen rushed to Chami, 200 km from Nouadhibou. There, in the middle of the desert, they set off on a quest even more uncertain than that of the fish. Far from the ocean, they became gold diggers.

Summary of the series “The African economy facing Covid-19”

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