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Drifting in West Africa: Chinese distant water fishing in Africa

By Chinese photographer Liu Yuyang. Note: Liu Yuyang’s series of photographs shown below, taken on board a Chinese fishing vessel off Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau in the Atlantic Ocean, formed part of a series called 漂在西非 Drifting in West Africa. Yuyang’s submission won first prize at the Africa-China Photo Exhibition in 2018. This is the story behind the images.

20 July 2016, in Senegalese waters. An African fisherman aboard a China Fujian Distant Water Fishing Ship looks out at a Chinese reefer ship headed towards Dakar. Fishing is one of the main industries in Senegal. Of the nearly 100,000 people employed in the fishing industry, 90% are artisanal fishers, while the remaining 10% work on foreign distant water fishing ships and jointly operated or Senegal-operated large-scale industrial fishing ships. The working cycle on large-scale industrial fishing ships is long, one voyage often lasting 20 days. During this time, they rely on reefer ships to provide living supplies and to carry caught fish back to port. (Yuyang Liu/Greenpeace).

As I’m going to the Atlantic with the fishing boat, a moist and astringent sea breeze hit the tidal levee outside the pier, and then the slave island of Gorée was blown back. As a transit point for the black slave trade hundreds of years ago, slave islands transported a batch of black slaves from the African continent to Europe and North America, for them never to see this land again. I lowered my head against the fence on the deck, the dark green waves rolling over the boat, and the waves immediately ignited another wave; and Senegal, which entered the rainy season, was gradually buried in the sea floor.

Senegal, the country at the western end of the African continent, seems to be born by the gift of God. This country, rich in peanuts, phosphate mines and marine fish has also become a new stronghold for Chinese people to go to the African continent and to the sea.

I met Mr Jin on a fishing boat. He is the second officer in the engine room on board. The fishing boat from Fujian Province is docked at Pier 10 in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. They usually travel from Dakar to the south and fish in the Atlantic waters of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. There are hundreds of ocean-going fishing boats from China in the ocean outside the Krubar River.

Mr Jin’s double-supported trawler is on call from a domestic fishing company to respond to the Communist Party of China’s and the State’s call to “support and expand offshore fishing” and implement the strategic decision of “encouraging domestic fishery enterprises to go global” in the West African region. In response to the call, one red, yellow and green Senegalese flag fluttered on the ship, accompanied by a whistle, and sailed into the endless ocean.

I live in a dormitory in a second floor cabin. The room is small, about six or seven square meters, with two beds and a table full of patch panels and plastic pockets. There was only one porthole in the whole room, and the light from the sea shone into the room from this small rounded rectangle, which was very cold. I moved my luggage into the room. The quilt on the bed was left by a crew member who had just left the ship, and it smelled of damp and decay. Mr Jin walked into the room and looked at me. He smiled and said, ah, you moved in.

I smiled and nodded. I pointed to my chest and didn’t dare to speak. My stomach had begun to fall into the sea with the boat and the big waves, and my head was becoming unspeakable. I quickly squatted and flipped through the bag to find a seasick sticker, tearing the wrapping paper behind the earlobe. “Seasick?”, Mr Jin asked. “People who have just boarded the boat will be like this. Just get used to it.”

He is from a rural area of ​​Henan Province. He is 44 years old and used to work in the shipyard in Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province. In the year of the Beijing Summer Olympics, he embarked on his first ship offshore. He told me that their fishing boats would go out to sea for about 20 to 30 days until the ship’s frozen warehouse was filled with all kinds of marine fish, and then return to Dakar.

I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. I ran to the deck two or three steps and vomited in the endless dark green water. Just like a huge force is compressing my stomach, I can’t control my body. I can only hold the railing tightly and beg not to be shaken off the boat. After a while, I felt a little more comfortable and returned to the cabin.

23 July 2016, in Guinea-Bissau waters. The work of fishing has begun. A strut on one side of the ship has become stuck and Captain Xu and two local sailors are trying to release the net. The ship uses side trawlers. During operation, struts are extended from both sides of the ship from which a net hangs and is dragged behind the boat. The trawl does not have specific targets and will catch a wide variety of marine life. The sailors work all day in shifts over a 24-hour period, bringing in the nets every 2-3 hours. After the nets are brought in, they are cleaned and sorting begins. (Yuyang Liu/Greenpeace).

After going for more than 20 hours, the ship broke down in a quiet sea. I glanced at the screen with the light shining in the cabin: 24 meters. We arrived at the scheduled fishing area. After a simple maneuver, the captain began to get busy with five Chinese crew members on board and more than a dozen African local crew members. This double-stent trawler takes off the net every 2 to 3 hours, and operates 24 hours a day, with an average of 5,000 kg per day.

There are so few people on board, so Mr Jin also needs to work on deck. After a harsh bell, he rolled over and went to the deck in his trousers. After a few minutes, he dragged his wet clothes back into the room. Then he started pulling the phone out of the charger and looked up at the porthole, seemingly looking for a cell phone signal that didn’t exist.

“China’s high-speed rail and motor trains are not the same speed,” he turned to look at me. “Now China is developing too fast.” I nodded casually and didn’t want to explain too much that this was actually about the the difference between the type of railway line and the train model. “What does New York look like? Is it costly to live in New York?”, he asked again. I replied that the cost of living is of course high, but their income is also high. Mr Jin laughed, “I saw it in a book.”

I was curious about their life on board and asked Mr Jin. He spoke a lot about reading and sleeping. There is no cell phone signal on board, there is no chance to communicate with the outside world, and there are only a few people who even speak Chinese. Many of these people leave home for two years, and then go to sea for dozens of days each time for a salary of less than RMB100,000 (about US$14,100) a year.

I asked another question that didn’t seem to be needing answer. “Do you think the life on board is lonely?”

“Yes.”

Then no more talking, and the cabin is silent for a long time. The sky outside the porthole was accompanied by the buzzing and shattering vibration of the fishing boat, and the sun gradually sank.

I have imagined countless times how life on board would be like. In Nouadhibou, the second-largest city in the desert country of northern Senegal, the long sands are scattered throughout the region, and even the oncoming wind has the taste of the Sahara. There is a wasteland between the airport and the sea in the suburb of Nouadhibou, where I found a Chinese cemetery; twenty tombstones lined up in a row, facing east. Since the 1980s, in order to get rid of the industrial problems faced by the decline of China’s offshore fishery resources, China has started offshore fishing in the West Atlantic Ocean. The tombstones of employees from Zhongshui and Sheung Shui are still neat, while some cemeteries are empty and filled with yellow sand.

I can’t imagine how the Chinese people came to West Africa, more than 10,000 kilometers away from home. Chinese people pay attention to falling leaves, but in the end, some people go on and on.

I gradually began to feel a little uneasy. The captain said that I might stay on board for a month because there was no ship to take me back to land. Lonely and seasick, all emotions are magnified many times. I started to get excited because I heard that a ship was close, and then I was frustrated because I couldn’t get a place to return to land. A TV drama stored in my mobile phone was watched three times.

In the week, I ate three meals of rice and a few meals of porridge. The chef on board told me that I had to eat, otherwise I could not hold on. I also knew that it was impossible to swallow, however, and I have to spit it out when I eat it. Mr Jin comforted me, don’t worry, he said, there will be a boat.

Coincidentally, one day later the captain told me that they had contacted a fishing boat that could take me back to Dakar. My heart seemed to have been fished out from the seabed dozens of meters deep. I suddenly felt that I could understand the life of the crew. I knew that the most beautiful sunset in the tropical rain season is coming.

25 July 2016, in Guinea-Bissau waters. Chief mate Wang is passing cigarettes to the local sailors. In general, the Chinese and African sailors get along well with one another. They communicate through hand gestures and key terms, but as their dietary and religious habits differ, they almost never eat together. The ship has two chefs, each responsible for the daily food of one group (Yuyang Liu/Greenpeace).

West Africa is one of the last most biodiverse rich waters on the planet. Greenpeace is working on moving West African countries and major foreign fishing powers (China and EU) towards sustainable fishery in the region.

China is now the largest fishing power in West Africa, who can play an important role in the process of moving the region towards sustainable fishing. In recent years, Greenpeace has investigated and exposed the Chinese distant finshing industry’s problematic practices in West African oceans, and have been working extensively on research, urging the Chinese government to overhaul its subsidies for China’s distant water fishing industry.

This photo story that was shot in Mauritania and Senegal was to witness and visualize existing oceanic problems in West Africa. I wanted to fully display, in the West Africa photo story, China’s distant water fishing activities in West Africa separately on sea and on shore, and to show how local artisanal fishermen’s lives have been affected by industrial fishing giants.

Therefore, I took three sets of photographs to depict a panorama of the current fishing industry in West Africa. In the first set, I went on an African pirogue to showcase how foreign industrial fishing fleets have affected local small-scale fishermen’s livelihoods with a glimpse of local artisanal fishermen’s work and life. In the second set, I explored the emerging Chinese fish meal industry in Mauritania from an insider’s perspective to try and show how this industry may be putting local natural resources at risk. In the third set, described here, I boarded a Chinese industrial fishing vessel to record the reclusive and lonely life of a group of distant water fishermen – drifting on the sea.

Liu Yuyang. http://www.yuyangliu.com/

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