In Senegal, recent legislation has drastically increased fines for illegal fishing to $1 million, and officials pointed to the two impounded foreign-owned boats in Dakar, the nation’s capital, as proof that their efforts are bearing fruit.
Glancing out at the sea, Capt. Mamadou Ndiaye described the challenges he faces as the director of enforcement for Senegal’s Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Economy. Many scofflaws, he noted, fish on the edge of Senegal’s territorial waters and can easily escape when threatened.
His agency cannot afford speedboats or satellite imagery; it could also use a functioning airplane. “Still, we have more than many other countries, and we have to help them, too,” he said.
Most of the small pelagic fish that swim in Senegalese waters — and make up 85 percent of the nation’s protein consumption — migrate in enormous schools between Morocco and Sierra Leone. Along the way, they are scooped up by hundreds of industrial trawlers, at least half of them Chinese-owned, experts say.
In 2012, Senegal stopped granting licenses to foreign trawlers for these small fish, but neighboring countries have refused to follow suit. Mauritania, where most of the fleet is Chinese-Mauritanian joint ventures, is home to 20 fishmeal factories that grind sea life into exported animal feed, with another 20 planned, according to Greenpeace.
Protecting the seas sometimes means saying no to China, whose largess is funding infrastructure across Africa.
“It’s hard to say no to China when they are building your roads,” said Dr. Samba, the former head of Senegal’s oceanic research institute.
Then there is the lack of transparency that keeps national fishing agreements with China secret.
“There is corruption in opacity,” said Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Center. “Sometimes the Chinese pay bribes to get access and that money doesn’t trickle down, so the population is hit by a double whammy.”
Beijing has become sensitive to accusations that its huge fishing fleet is helping push fish stocks to the brink of collapse.
The government says it is aggressively reducing fuel subsidies — by 2019 they will have been cut by 60 percent, according to a fishery official — and pending legislation would require all distant-water vessels manufactured in China to register with the government, enabling better monitoring.
“The era of fishing any way you want, wherever you want, has passed,” Liu Xinzhong, deputy general director of the Bureau of Fisheries in Beijing, said. “We now need to fish by the rules.”
But criticism of China’s fishing practices, he added, is sometimes exaggerated, arguing that Chinese vessels traveling to Africa were simply…