Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ghost Town

Geography lessons from Ospreys #437
Location: “Puntillas de las Raimas”, Cintra, Western Sahara, N 23.08, W 16.20

Kielder osprey “Blue UV” arrived at the Gulf of Cintra on 11th December 2014 after an epic 2000 km migration flight from his long stopover in southern Portugal. We were intrigued – few if any tracked birds have ever visited this remote and disputed spot on the edge of the Sahara Desert. As UV looked around his new discovery, I did the same thing on Google Earth. I knew almost nothing about it. Were there any signs of human habitation around the place? There were not.

But there used to be...

Separated in time by nine years, these two aerial photographs of the same location show that there was once a thriving fishing community here at Las Raimas.  Now the hundreds of boats - rough-built inshore craft known as piroques - are gone, and the shanty town that housed their owners and crews is almost buried under the shifting coastal sand dunes. The bay is in a prime position for fishing (and for migrating ospreys) located as it is in the middle of one of the most productive continental shelves on the entire planet. The lee side of the bay is an ideal haul-out for these shallow-draft boats as it is sheltered from the prevailing northerly winds and the powerful Atlantic surf. So what caused these people to abandon their village during this period?

It could have been the local security situation: Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) has seen sporadic armed conflict for years, victim to the rivalries of its more powerful neighbours: Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. All of them have coveted its natural resources, but none of them have done its people much good.

Perhaps it was the encroachment of the desert itself, or a failure of the (never reliable) water supply, or the attractions of a less-hazardous way of life in some other line of work. But I don't think it was any of these factors...

The German-registered super trawler "Maartje Theadora" operating off the
coast of Mauritania, 2013. (Greenpeace)

In recent years, the traditional artisan fishing industry in west Africa has been taking a hammering. Locally-owned fish processing stations have closed, boats have been laid up, whole coastal communities have been displaced. The hammering has been administered by large foreign factory trawlers from Europe, from Russia, and now from the Far East as well. Operating around the clock - and on a netting scale that the piroques cannot match - they can take out in one single day, more tonnage than all the fishermen of Cintra would have harvested in their entire season.

The big trawlers need nothing from the land, except fuel oil. They process and refrigerate their own catch, and do not need to sell it at local markets. They respect neither national agreements nor quotas, nor the boundaries of marine reserves. The discarded by-catch includes every creature that swims, and it all goes back over the side – dead. For the countries affected, it's an economic and environmental disaster. But down along the same coast, one man has had enough.

Haïdar el Ali is Senegal's pugnacious and mercurial Minister for Fisheries. Since moving from Environment - where last year he took on Big Timber with devastating effect – he has revoked 29 foreign operating licences, arrested and detained the Russian trawler Oleg Naydenov, and is personally overseeing regeneration projects among his country's artisan fishing communities. You can read more about his exploits HERE.

But what then for Las Raimas? Its people may have moved elsewhere, but they will have taken their disturbance and their pollution elsewhere, too. The lagoon at the north side of the bay - known as the Bajo Tortugo ('little tortoise', after the curiously-domed sandbar that guards its seaward entrance) is now clean and quiet. At least one osprey has come there instead for a visit. And he has come to a very remarkable place, because the Gulf of Cintra is not just blue ripples and an empty beach: its warm shallow waters are thought to be a nursery area for rare marine life and mammals, including Risso's dolphins and the critically-endangered Mediterranean monk seal. With suitable research and protected status, it could be as important to the eastern Atlantic ocean as the Sea of Cortez is to the Pacific.

 I didn't know any of this before UV arrived in the area, but I do now. He is doing a great job.


Forestry Commission England, Kielder osprey blog:
EU fisheries policy in West Africa (Oli Brown 2009)
Biodiversity - Atlantic coastal desert: (WWF)

1 comment:

  1. UV is indeed doing a great job in increasing our learning on a variety of matters. A fascinating post, if disturbing, more power to Haïdar el Ali's elbow.