The waters off the coast of Senegal have been stripped of their false cods, also known as "thiof" or groupers. How is it possible that this country's iconic fish is nearly extinct? A French-Senegalese team recently demonstrated that the collapse of stocks is due to the boom in the small-scale fishery sector – generally viewed as a sustainable alternative to industrial fisheries. Over 30 years, the number of pirogues has quadrupled. Technological progress continuously improves the fishing power of the fleet. In order to reduce pressure on the resource, researchers recommend the implementation of a management system to control small-scale fisheries and regulate exportation, which pushes up prices per kilo and makes thiof a very profitable commodity, despite the scarcity of the fish.
Over the last ten years, the white grouper (or "thiof" in the Wolof language) has been in catastrophic decline in Senegal. The country's iconic fish was until recently still the basis for their national dish, "thiéboudiène". Today, it is very rare at market stalls and sold at an exorbitant price per kilo.
A flotilla multiplied fourfold
How could a fish that was previously symbolic of the abundance of Senegalese resources become nearly extinct? A French-Senegalese team of the CRODT(1) and the IRD recently demonstrated that the collapse of false cod stocks is due to the boom in the small-scale fishery sector over the last 30 years, which was in fact considered a more sustainable solution than industrial fisheries. Under the pressure of foreign (and particularly European) demand, the number of pirogues has multiplied fourfold(2). Based on the data provided by the CRODT, researchers could prove the correlation between the boom in small-scale fisheries and the decline in thiof over the last few decades.
In addition to the rise in their numbers, the boatmen owe a lot of their fishing success to improved technologies. Today, the majority of them have GPS navigation tools and sounders to detect shoals of fish. They can cover long distances, beyond territorial waters and up to Mauritania, in particular. They are also extremely adaptable and can switch from a line to a net, for example, if necessary. This flexibility enables them to adapt to demand in the context of a globalised seafood market.
Thiof deprived of its males
The false cod, known scientifically as Epinephelus aeneus, has a particularity which increases the effects of its over-exploitation: it is a hermaphrodite. The fish is born female, then becomes male towards the age of twelve, as soon as it has reached 80 cm in length. The largest fish are caught as a preference. The males are therefore taken first, and eventually there are almost only females left. This phenomenon threatens the renewal of stocks through reproduction.
These works highlight the necessity to develop a conservation strategy which includes the management of the small-scale fleet, which is essentially diverse, and reduces fishing pressure. In this regard, researchers recommend the reduction of subsidies, which continuously provide incentive to increase the capacity of fisheries. Another lever would be to regulate exportation, thus reducing the interest of fishermen in this particular species, through regulatory measures or by discouraging the external demand through various means, taxes or awareness-raising campaigns, in order to bring down the local price of false cod and to see it on Senegalese market stalls once again.