Sixteen years ago the European Community signed a fishery agreement with West Africa's most important fishing country, Senegal, to allow EC boats to fish in its zone. Senegal accounts for over 80 per cent of the fish that Africa exports to Europe.
In 1992 the agreement came up for renewal. Persistently high catches in Senegal's 200 mile zone meant stocks were precariously low. Despite warnings about this from an EU-funded body in Senegal, the Oceanographic Research Centre, a new two-year deal was signed which allowed EU trawlers to take 57 per cent more fish.
Senegal's 35,000 small-scale fishermen were dismayed. Their livelihoods stood to be wiped out. Deo Gaye, general secretary of the National Collective of Senegalese Artisanal Fishermen, warned that the deal would "devastate the fish, undermine livelihoods and threaten food security".
Pierre Gillet of the Brussels office of a voluntary group, the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, called the agreement a "disaster" for Senegalese fishworkers.
Why did the EU ignore warnings from a body that it was funding? Partly, it seems, because of pressure from Spain. Around three-quarters of the EU boats that fish in Senegalese waters are Spanish. It is Spain's huge fishing fleet that has gained most from the 57 per cent hike in allowable catches.
The agreement helps the European trawlers (French, Italian and Greek as well as Spanish) and makes fish more abundant in Europe's shops, so helping to keep down prices. But Senegalese fishermen are paying the price.
Catches are dwindling in the country's six-mile near-shore area reserved for small-scale fishermen, says Deo Gaye, affecting their incomes and the amount of fish available on the local market. While the foreign trawlers cannot fish within six miles of the shore, their nets haul up such huge catches, of sole and hake, for example, that fewer swim into the near- shore area.
Some species have disappeared completely inshore - including a fish called St Pierre which used to fetch a good price on local markets. This is now all being caught by trawlers further out to sea. The decline in the supply of fish for Senegalese people "will have a major impact on local nutrition," warns Mr Gaye.
Stocks of small fish are being further plundered as Europe's trawlers discard large quantities of dead fish. "I've seen boats throw away 90 per cent of their catch, keeping only the high-value species," says Mr Gaye.
The EU trawlers land their catches in Senegalese ports. As the boats make their way through the near-shore fishing grounds they often collide with fragile local boats, cutting through nets and causing injuries and deaths, especially at night. Around 20 Senegalese fishermen a year are killed.
Senegal's fish exports to the EU are worth around £130m a year, money which is effectively earmarked for interest payments on the country's large foreign debt. Local fishermen claim the government has neglected their needs and failed to appreciate the contribution they make to food supplies.
Last September a new two-year deal was agreed between Senegal and the European Commission, although it has still to be approved by the EU parliament and Council of Ministers. While the new deal "provides for a smaller European fleet", local fishermen believe the trawlers will still ship away a sizeable amount of fish that should be in their nets and on their tables.
John Madeley is the author of `Fish: a Net Loss for the Poor'Reuse content