EAF-Nansen Programme

Sardinella fisheries: quickly disappearing vital source of food and nutrition security in Northwest Africa


Small pelagic fish represent nearly 70 percent of catches in Northwest Africa.

In Mauritania, for example, they constitute 90 percent of the total annual catches that arise to around 1.400.000 tonnes, explains Dr Cheikh Baye Braham, the President of the Working Group on Small Pelagic Fish in Northwest Africa under the Fishery Committee for the Eastern Central Atlantic (CECAF). In the Gambia, small pelagic fishery accounts for 75 percent of the total fish production, adds Mr Momodou Sidibeh, Deputy Director at The Gambia Fisheries Department.

Among them Sardinella species are in particularly high demand, as they contribute significantly to the economy (including employment opportunities) and food and nutrition security of both coastal and inland communities of the region. Sardinella represents the highest landings in the Gambia, underlines Mr Sidibeh. In Senegal, sardinellas are the most accessible small pelagic fish and they play an important role for food security in the country, says Dr Fambaye Ngom Sow, Chief Scientist at the Oceanographic Research Centre of Dakar-Thiaroye (CRODT) of the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research (ISRA). 

However, the state of the once abundant species is alarming today, with two stocks of sardinella - the round sardinella (Sardinella aurita) and Madeiran sardinella (S. maderensis) - decreasing in the region.

The situation of these stocks is very worrying for all the countries of the region, stresses Dr Baye Braham.

Currently limited data - or the lack of it -, together with the rapid changes in exploitation and the transboundary nature of these fish stocks make the assessment even more difficult. All available information based on recent regional assessments, carried out by the FAO Working Group on the assessment of small pelagic fish off Northwest Africa, and integrated into the advisory framework of the CECAF, points to an overfishing, particularly of the round sardinella stock. Very little information is available about the Madeiran sardinella.  

© FAO/ Matthieu Bernardon

In addition, these shared resources are vulnerable to variations in environmental conditions (including climate change) and face additional fishing pressure to support recently advancing fishmeal industry in the region, which targets sardinella as a major species. This is causing growing concern not only about the overexploitation of the small pelagic resources, but also the re-targeting of the fish meant for local consumption and hence essential for peoples’ livelihoods and food and nutrition security.

In 2020, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in collaboration with the WorldFish institute initiated a study to assess socio-economic and biological consequences of the fishmeal industry on food security, livelihoods, and the sustainability of the small pelagic resources in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study covered Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia, as well as Southern and Eastern African lakes, where large quantities of both marine and inland fish are caught to meet the expanding manufacturing of fishmeal and other fish-based feeds.

In countries like Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia, fishmeal is almost entirely produced from small pelagics – like round sardinella, flat sardinella and bonga – that are usually considered the main and cheaper source of animal protein for thousands of people in the region, comments Mr Djiga Thiao, fisheries expert and FAO technical lead of the study.

The initiative was based on a recommendation by the CECAF, with support from the EAF-Nansen Programme and a project on empowering women in small-scale fisheries for sustainable food systems – both of which are funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). The results from the upcoming study will serve as a basis to formulate recommendations for decision-makers on possible measures needed for sustainable development of the fishmeal industry in West and East Africa.

One of the main priorities of the EAF-Nansen Programme is to promote collaboration between partner countries on the management and monitoring of shared stocks. The programme also supports the stock assessments for small pelagic fish through technical assistance and data collection from scientific surveys carried out on board the research vessel, Dr Fridtjof Nansen, since the Working Group was established in 2001. Improving knowledge on the nutritional value of fish and food safety is an integral component of the Science Plan in the current phase of the EAF-Nansen Programme, of which the long-term objective is to ensure that sustainable fisheries improve food and nutrition security for people in partner countries. Additional knowledge gathered through workshops on nutrition and food safety contributes to developing and strengthening regional capacity of the beneficiary countries.

The existing data confirm that small pelagic fish when consumed whole are particularly nutrient-dense, said Dr Marian Kiellevold, Food and Nutrition Security Senior Scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR). Species like sardinella contribute significantly to the daily intake of several key micronutrients unique to aquatic foods, vitamin D, iodine and marine fatty acids. It is therefore so important to introduce the debate on potential contributions of fish to food security and nutrition at a global scale, Dr Kiellevold added.

The recently launched Shared sardinella initiative in northwest Africa (including Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal and the Gambia) responds to the need for joint efforts at regional and national level. FAO, through the EAF-Nansen Programme, is supporting the implementation of the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries for the management of shared sardinella stocks with the objective to promote regional coherence. Tasks implemented at the national level answer the specific targets of the Programme’s partner countries, and are aimed at improving the countries’ knowledge on sardinella, together with supporting the management process for the sardinella fisheries.

Mauritania is one of the countries in the region that recognised the problem. Since sardinella is the most important pelagic species for the country, and round sardinella considered as overexploited already for many years, great efforts are being made to limit the transformation of the sardinella species into fishmeal. Other measures introduced include moving away the fishing vessels from the coast and diminishing fishing quotas for certain vessels that supply the fishmeal industry.

In 2017, the Mauritanian Institute of Oceanographic and Fisheries Research in collaboration with some manufacturers launched a project in the country, which objective is to improve the sustainability of small pelagic fish, together with the sardinella species, sums up Dr Baye Braham.  

In the Gambia, the government is working on strengthening regulation with regard to the mesh size, the size of the landed catch as well as introduction of the fishery-closed season, points out Mr Sidibeh.

Fast approaching International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 is a great opportunity to highlight the vital role of small pelagic fish for small scale fisheries, reinforcing their contribution to ensure food security and nutrition, poverty eradication and sustainable use of these marine resources, on which millions of livelihoods depend globally every day.