Articolo di Anna Ferro

Climate change, fisheries and illegal migration, a case study in Senegal

The story of Mr. Moustapha Diouf and Mr. Mohamed Ndiaye takes place in the Senegalese costal area, not far from the city of Dakar. They represent a returned migrant association (AJRAP - Association des Jeunes Rapatriés de Thiaroye sur Mer) committed to raise awareness on the risks of irregular migration and on the root causes that force many fishermen - like them - to quit their activities and take the hazard to the Canary Islands. In November 2022, a field trip to Senegal was organized (Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom) to meet stakeholders and visit sites linked to environmental degradation and climatic variability.  On that occasion, the author met Moustapha and Mohamed whose experience clearly reveals how migration - as a response to get away from poverty - interconnects with other existing features, as climate change and environmental degradation, fisheries’ local and international practices, governments’ agreements, and civic society limited advocacy capacity. The case of the fishermen communities in Senegal offers a clear understanding of the multicausality behind migration flows and of the current impact of climate change as concurrent aggravating factor of social and economic hardship.

Fisheries has a significant role in Senegal as it contributes to food security and it provides jobs, especially for coastal populations. It involves many fishing communities, including those involved in the traditional processing subsectors, as drying and smoking, overall employing between 15-17% of the labour force[1]. The biological diversity of the maritime zone includes different resources (coastal, deep-sea pelagics, and deep-sea demersals) and it affects the techniques adopted also according to the local socio-economic factors.


The sector contributes to 3,2% to Senegal’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), accounting for 10,2% of Senegal exports, and generating $400 million in value in 2021.  Artisanal fishing[2] is predominant (90% of all landings), largely using traditional motorized pirogues that provide 80% of the catch, mainly fishing small pelagics.

The fishing communities, in the last 20 years, suffered of an economic decline due to the impact of unregulated fishing practices, and also due to the tangible effects of climate change; the outcome today is the increased impoverishment and the augmented migratory pressure among this population.

Overfishing, unreported and unregulated fishing[3], especially from unauthorized industrial fleets, represent a threat for many Senegalese households and for the country’s economy. The Senegalese Government developed a national Climate Change Adaptation Plan specifically for marine fisheries (since 2012) and a National Action Plan to combat irregular and illegal fishing (since 2015), although with limited successful results.

Moustapha and Mohamed tell that over the last years, the Senegalese Government signed different fishing bilateral agreements and assigned the fishing licensing to North Korea, Russia, the EU and China. More in details, in order to operate in Senegal, a foreign vessel would need have a presence in the country through the creation of a joint venture with a local partner. In 1979 Senegal signed its first fishing agreement with the European Union, until the last protocol (2019-2024) allowing French and Spanish vessels for tuna and hake fishing and to go beyond the six nautical mile (12 km) zone reserved for traditional fishing[4]. Despite the premises of this latest agreement, formally based on a sustainable approach and on the existence of a surplus of resources and fished spices (hake and tuna) that are not traditionally fished by Senegalese artisanal fishermen, diffuse criticism exists.

Organizations from civic society[5] as l’Association des Jeunes Rapatriés de Thiaroye sur Mer largely disapproved the lack of transparency in the licensing process and the lack of protection to small-scale fishing micro-economy and to traditional sustainable fishing practices, unfortunately with no evident impact.  Complaints additionally denounced that many presumed Senegalese companies cover foreign owners and interests that only exploit local resources[6] and often adopt illegal fishing practices.

At the same time, the fishery sector in Senegal is and will be hit by climate change[7]. Fishing communities, ecosystems, and landing sites are affected by the rising of sea level with consequent coastal erosion, by changed fish location and fish migration patterns due to water climate variability and temperature rising, by heavy rainfall and floodings, not to mention water pollution due uncontrolled vessels in the area.

One of the adaptation strategies employed by many Senegalese – and among the, by many young fishermen out of job - is to consider migration to Europe as a viable option. Already in 2006, the “Cayucos crisis” - named after the popular fishing boats employed - involved approximately 32.000 persons that tried to reach the Canary Islands taking the West African sea route. This migration wave responded to push factors in Senegal - as the absence of economic opportunities, family and societal pressures, political instability in the region, and impacts of overfishing - and to pull factors - as rumors of a Spanish attitude to regularize irregular migrants, within a surging economy framework.

Today, the possibilities for the Senegalese youth are very limited; poverty, youth unemployment, migratory pressure, and lack of perspectives of the future are evident push factors. Moreover, fishermen are deeply concerned for the lack of fish in closer territorial waters and for their inability to compete with foreign vessels in deeper waters. The civic society mobilization has little or no impact on the Governments’ fishing agreements and on lobbying for compensation measures. Converting boats for fishing trips into boats to migrate from Senegal or Mauritania can ultimately result in an inevitable and more profitable option. Moustapha and Mohamed are among those boat people that left Senegal in 2006, but not only they were repatriated. They also experienced the risks connected to the Ocean route to Canary Islands and they today operate to discourage young fishermen from the dangers of irregular migration. Their requests urge to stop or limit existing fishing agreements, improve controls, implement measures to protect traditional fishing practices and communities, create alternatives to migration by contributing to build capacities and improve the equipment of local fishermen.

Irregular migration from Senegalese coastal areas indicates today multifaceted and overlapping poverty root causes. Climate change exacerbates other existing problems, overall pointing at the need to implement policy decisions that cover the environment, specific sectors, international public and private relationships and deals, migration management, social and economic development.



Article realised within the project  Raccontando il cambiamento climatico funded by the Otto per Mille della Chiesa Valdese


[1] Direct and indirect employment is estimated to involve approximately 600.000 persons in Senegal ().

[2] Local councils on artisanal maritime fisheries are also in charge of organizing and educating fishers and involve stakeholders into development-related proposals.

[3] From both artisanal and industrial fishing boats.

[4] “The protocol provides fishing opportunities for up to 28 freezer tuna seiners, 10 pole-and-line vessels and 5 longliners from Spain, Portugal and France, corresponding to a reference tonnage of 10 000 tonnes of tuna per year. In addition, it authorises catches of 1 750 tonnes of black hake per year for two Spanish trawlers. The annual EU financial contribution is €1.7 million, of which €800 000 represents access rights to Senegal's waters. The remaining €900 000 provides for sectoral support for the implementation of Senegal's fisheries policy, for example improving fisheries control, developing fisheries research and data collection, and providing health certification for fisheries products. Additional fees payable by ship owners are estimated at around €1.35 million per year” .

[5] As the Senegalese organization Groupement des Armateurs et Industriels de la Pêche au Senegal (GAIPES)  or the Association for the Promotion and Accountability of Actors in Maritime Artisanal Fishing (APRAPAM).

[6] Additionally, it is reported that the refuelling of Chinese trawlers is done by offshore vessels, further keeping that money out of local economies .

[7] Although with not easy predictability on the magnitude and the definitive impacts .