COVID-19 Jeopardizes the Artisanal Fish Supply and Trade in Senegal

May 28, 2020

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Photo: Fatou Diouf is a fish seller at the Grand Yoff market in Dakar, Senegal.
hoto Credit: Melissa Cooperman, IFPRI, November 2019

This blog post was written by Juan Vilata, International Fisheries Biologist, and Thoric Cederström, Director of Research and Learning, Food Enterprise Solutions.

At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on the most vulnerable populations and food supply chains has become a global concern. Senegal is no exception. In this West African country, seafood — especially the sardine-like fish called Sardinella — is a key staple food and an important source of animal protein. Equally important, the fishing industry is a major contributor to the gross domestic product (17%) and a source of diverse livelihoods, yielding close to 400,000 tons of seafood annually and supporting a 600,000 strong workforce encompassing artisanal fishers, fish intermediaries, and traditional small-scale fish processors. Food Enterprise Solutions (FES) is currently conducting a food safety situational analysis (FSSA) in Senegal through its USAID-funded Feed the Future initiative called Business Drivers for Food Safety (BD4FS) to identify key barriers and opportunities to improving seafood safety practices. Given the COVID-19 crisis, we amplified our inquiry to include: How is COVID-19 and the government of Senegal’s response to the pandemic affecting the fishing industry as a whole, specifically the entrepreneurs, laborers, and consumers dependent on seafood for their livelihoods and well-being?  

Traditional fish processing, even though relatively small-scale, commands particular socioeconomic relevance in Senegal. Fish for local and regional markets is traditionally processed by associations of women, femmes transformatrices, who use sun-drying, braising, salting, smoking, and fermenting to prevent spoilage. These femmes transformatrices buy fish (Sardinella and other species) from the fishermen or fish intermediaries and, after processing it, they sell the final product to traders whom will bring it to the coastal and hinterland regions of Senegal and neighboring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, or Cote d’Ivoire. Some associations have obtained EU export accreditation. Additionally, fish from neighboring countries of Guinea Bissau and Mauritania are imported, traded, and consumed in Senegal and processed with traditional techniques. 

In response to COVID-19, the Government of Senegal issued a State of Emergency on March 23, 2020, which remains in effect. It imposes a curfew from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. It restricts the movement of people, vehicles, and goods; prohibits parades, rallies, and public demonstrations on public roadways; requires the closure of public meeting places; and prohibits public or private meetings. Some measures were relaxed after May 11, 2020, but the curfew remains in place as well as limitations on interregional transport. 

According to Dr. Babacar Sené, a Senegalese seafood expert, the pandemic has significantly impacted the economic activities of coastal communities. Fishers are allowed to go out to sea to fish, but they must abide by the curfew, which severely limits work routines and distances to which they can sail. Also, they can no longer fish in the waters of neighboring countries. Finally, key landing areas (Diamalaye, St. Louis, Mbour) have been closed, effectively halting fish movement through these points.

Another consequence is the diminished supply of fresh fish in the local markets and consequently increased prices. Sardinella supply has been particularly hard hit: Sardinella schools usually congregate farther offshore in plankton-rich open waters. Mr. Mamadou Niang, another fisheries expert, notes that Sardinella landings are down more than 60%. Thus, as Dr. Sené notes, “Sardinella is not available although it is in season.” 

Before, a 50 kg box of Sardinella from the fishermen would cost about 8,000 CFA (USD 13) on average (perhaps a bit more or less, depending on seasonal fluctuations). But now it costs 24,000 CFA (USD 40), which is almost three times as much. This scarcity severely impacts the economic activities of women fish processing associations. Border closures thwart 100% of inter-provincial supply and trade of Sardinella within Senegal. In-country movement restrictions mean that it is harder to bring Sardinella caught in the provinces to Dakar for processing or selling.  

According to Mme. Diaba Diop, Secretary-General of Pencum Senegal (a coalition of women fish processing associations), these associations have taken a hard hit and lost a large portion of their customer base. Pencum had established a customer base by supplying wholesale markets in Dakar and 13 other regions in Senegal, as well as in neighboring countries including Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ghana. But, these transactions have ended. Many Pencum customers were local fish buyers who would buy product from Pencum to then resell in weekly markets; however, with reduced weekly markets, these activities have been constrained. The restrictions have also severely limited the women’s capacities for processing fish. Some landing sites are only open four days a week, and others are open only three days a week. Fish must be processed within the curfew timeframe, resulting in a drastic drop in production. Yet even with this lower output, sales are poor as risks of spoiling are continuously increasing. 

There is no question that the supply of fresh fish in the local markets of Senegal — whether from local sources or the wider West Africa area —has been very adversely affected. The reduction endangers the livelihoods and diets of producers and consumers. If the COVID-19 emergency persists many more weeks, it might have severe impacts on the nutritional status of vulnerable segments of the population, especially women and young children. As well, there are direct impacts of the pandemic on the fisheries community: fishers, processors, and sellers are at risk of contracting COVID-19 when working at the highly congested landing sites, docks, and markets. 

The COVID-19 response in Senegal reveals how vulnerable the artisanal fisheries sector is to disruptions which jeopardize the livelihoods and well-being of those involved. The global pandemic illustrates how certain measures related to hygiene and sanitation (handwashing, proper food handling procedures, etc.) will also help curb the spread of both COVID-19 and seafood-borne diseases. Measures to improve the sanitary conditions along the supply chain will have to protect the income of artisanal seafood workers, safeguard them and the general public from seafood-related health hazards, and provide a solid barrier against potential future outbreaks of COVID-19-like viruses. BD4FS and its private sector partners in Senegal seek to transform the sanitary conditions in the seafood sector through a variety of measures — WASH, mSafeFood, logistics, technical assistance — that result in long-lasting, sustainable economic benefits and increase resilience against pandemics.