26 February 2014

I have taken great pleasure in interviewing some of the older fishermen on Jinack Island in recent days. On Sunday, I spoke with a retired fisher, now in his eighties, who worked for over 40 years as a chef in Senegal, before moving back to Jinack Island to take up fishing. In French, interspersed with Mandinka and broken English, he related how he used to see small sawfishes cast on the beach by the surf, only to be reclaimed by the next wave. He used to have a sawfish rostrum above his front door, and he said that if someone entered his house with bad or evil intentions, those intentions would be removed as they passed under the saw. He also mentioned the same piece of natural history I have heard from interviewees in other parts of The Gambia – that the male sawfish would swim in front of the female, and kill fish (here the interviewees always hold their arm out and make a slicing motion from side to side, which well mimics the action used by sawfishes) which the female behind would eat. They would then switch places so that the male could feed. All the fishers who have mentioned this say they have themselves seen this behaviour. Although stories and natural history often become mingled in West Africa, it is interesting that this has been mentioned by numerous people at many different landing sites. 

A huge stingray landed at Banjul, 2-3 years ago.
Guitarfish landed at Banjul, 2-3 years ago.
In Banjul today, I spoke with Moussa, a fish buyer with a warm smile. Mid-way through our interview he disappeared to his shack, where he used to have some sawfish rostra. He couldn’t find them, but instead brought out a bin bag filled with bundles of notebooks, wrapped in newspaper sheets and thin plastic bags. Photographs slipped out from between the pages, showing him holding rays metres across, as well as several large sharks, all landed at Banjul. The photographs, he said, were only from a two or three years ago. Although most fishermen I have interviewed have told me there are ‘no more’ sharks, I wonder if they may have meant that shark catches are greatly reduced in comparison with the past. Either that, or they have been wary of speaking about landing sharks, although they have been very open about catching rays. 

On Thursday, I visited Banjul’s landing site again and stepped gingerly around heaps of glistening, steaming catfish, ladled from huge silver pots and piled on canvas on the ground. Weaving my way around the drying racks, I found an enormous guitarfish over 1.3 m in length, and more brittle piles of rays and sharks coated in salt. Guitarfishes are one of the most highly threatened families of sharks and rays worldwide*. These sights, along with Moussa’s photographs, may suggest that ray populations have not been entirely decimated here yet. Although these signs are encouraging, these species are clearly being targeted by fishers in the region and stocks may soon become depleted unless the fishery is well-managed.   

*Dulvy et al. 2014. Extinction risk and conservation of the world's sharks and rays. eLife 2014; 3: e00590.
Dried guitarfish at Banjul fish landings site.

Interviewing fishermen in Banjul.

This work was made possible by a grant from the Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

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