Mauritania has long existed as a rentier state supported from the external revenues gained from mining, fishing, petroleum, and international aid (Magrin et al. 2011). As the majority of Mauritania is permanent pasture (38.1%), the country’s majority population of Berber and Arab nomads had in the early colonial times based their economy upon the Saharan salt trade. More recent development has resulted in an expansion of oil, natural gas and mineral (iron ore, gold, copper, gypsum, and phosphate rock) extraction, which provide 13% to 30% of total state revenue (2006-2016), according to the CIA World Factbook (2017). Yet despite the richness, the strongest driver of the economy for purposes of local consumption and exports is fish. Mauritania's coast is a high biological productivity coastal upwelling region. The Mauritanian coast possesses high levels of biodiversity, promoting a burgeoning fishing trade, most of which is required by law to be sold through the state managed Société Mauritanienne de la Commercialisation de Poissons (SMCP). The country’s coasts are among the richest fishing areas in the world, and fishing accounts for 25% of budget revenues and GNP, 50% of foreign currency earnings, with 70% of the 100,000 tons of annual production exported yearly (Magrin et al. 2011). Fishing, in turn, generates 45,000 jobs accounting for 36% of all employment. However, due to policy failures on the part of the Mauritanian government, overfishing is threatening the Mauritania’s coastal biodiversity and the fishing livelihood of the people who depend upon it.
Changes to local ecology : In 1976, at the urging of French naturalist Théodore Monod, the president of the young Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Mokhtar Ould Daddah decided to set an important coastal zone aside as the National Park of the Bank of Arguin (PNBA), a sanctuary and breeding ground for fish and birds. European explorers that passed through this biodiversity area in early days considered it to be ‘an insatiable source of fish’ across its 12,000 square kilometers of land and sea. The place attracts 2.5 million wading birds as well as other shore and seabird that winter along the coast. Its importance as a biological zone stems from offshore upwelling, which brings high nutrient loads and attracts numerous micro and macro species to feed and spawn or breed. The Bank of Arguin became a Ramsar site in 1982 due to its biodiversity values and a part of UNESCO’s global heritage in 1989. The reserve serves as breeding grounds for many species of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals that frequent the zone, and houses over 200 different species of birds during the winter in the northern hemisphere. Competition to extract from the Arguin continues to rise, due in part to multiple pressures on surrounding waters, namely overfishing by international trawlers. Local people indigenous to the Bank of Arguin include the Imraguen, a group living primarily in the village of Iwik, who depend on abundant fish for their livelihoods. The Park rules limited their catch (Tuquoi 2008), demanding use of non-motorized wooden boats in fishing the Arguin’s waters (BBC 2001). Yet, despite this law, the artisanal fishing continues to grow in this protected area, with the number of non-motorized boats rising from 500 boats in 1980 to close to 6,000 today. Moreover, the catch follows the trends along the coast of the country and has reached a historic peak of 115,000 tons composed of 200 species in 2010 (IUCN 2014). Shark species, due to their rarity, are the only species that is outlawed to the indigenous fishermen; however, despite this rule the practice of catching and killing them for their fins continues unabated. Illegal Catch: Laws aiming to protect the marine ecosystem are concurrently flouted by multiple actors exploiting the zone, mostly for the purpose of export profits. Within the Bank of Arguin, foreign fishing giants, to circumnavigate fishing regulations use smaller (and sometimes local) vessels to penetrate the restricted waters, which thereafter transport their catch to larger ships known as ‘reefers.’ There, the fish is frozen and stored with legally caught fish, sufficiently indemnifying the catch as ‘legal’ for European markets. According to Alfonso Daniels of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), who studies illegal fishing in West Africa, more than 84% of illegal fish have been extracted in this fashion (Daniels 2016). Moreover, the state exporting agency, the SMCP has not seen the profits from these and other fish leaving the region, as shown by a 28.5% drop in receipts from 2012 to 2013 while the same year’s exports increased by 20%. Local fishermen have seen drastic declines in fisheries, pushing them to travel further afield to find their catch (Magrin et al, 2011).
Other illegal activity stems from trawlers who dishonestly report their catch or what is thrown back into the ocean. As a result of overfishing, local political organizations as well as international organizations like Greenpeace have campaigned against foreign fishing trawlers and the high levels of damage to fisheries. Large commercial trawlers can process and freeze up to 250 tons per day. The Chinese possess more than 400 fishing fleets that are in operation on the western coast of Africa, the majority of which use bottom trawling for their catch or illegal practices. A May 2015 report exposed 74 Chinese distant water fishing vessels that had been fishing without authorization in prohibited waters and falsifying their vessel tonnage (Coulibaly 2015). Also, between 2001 to 2006 and 2011 to 2013, Greenpeace documented 183 illegal, unreported and unregulated cases involving Chinese vessels in the West African region (ibid.).