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Jose is a typical Cape Verdean – in a population of 1.5 million, he is one of the estimated 1 million people that migrated from the islands in search of better opportunities.

cape verde map

Cape Verde has a distinct lack of fresh water and thus arable land, which means that around 82% of all food must be imported. This perilous dependency on imports and the resulting high prices on consumer goods has led the islanders to begin the wholesale destruction of their own land: much of the scant forests have already been logged for construction and energy and now the last remaining resource, sand, is rapidly vanishing. Due to the diminishing capacity of the population to fish, islanders reap a modest income from the sale of sand, but this barely allows them to subsist. The vanishing beaches of Cape Verde are dissuading tourists from visiting large parts of the country and thus closing off a useful source of income to the island.


The Decline of Fisheries

As the global human population spikes, marine life is experiencing an unprecedented downturn. Fishing has traditionally enabled coastal societies like Cape Verde to be self-sustainable. As fish stocks decline the archipelago becomes increasingly more dependent on outside trade and development aid. The domestic fish market of the European Union experienced a severe crash in production at the beginning of the nineties and has since then been acquiring fishing rights globally in a desperate bid to satiate demand. EU fisheries abroad are often detrimental for countries like Cape Verde, which have little contractual power in negotiations.
Cape Verde’s geological formations are a rich ground for many migratory species of fish such as the sough-after tuna, and particularly sharks, valued as a delicacy in Chinese shark fin soup. One kilo of dried shark fin is worth up to 300 Euros, making it the most expensive marine product in the world. European longliners want access to these resources and the EU facilitates this by negotiating a treaty with Cape Verde’s government every five years.
The global fishing industry is not only over-exploitative but also notoriously short sighted. A combination of legal loopholes, mismanagement by international bodies, and inflated subsidies ensure that fishing companies can engage in environmentally destructive and often illegal practices.
The essential ‘carte blanche’ given to these companies by foreign governments, such as the EU, and the comparatively meagre financial resources of small countries mean that Cape Verde has very little power to stop the wholesale plunder of its precious resources. This is to the detriment of an already impoverished island society.


The EU: Treaties and Sharks

In 2009, the fishing quota for all EU vessels was 5,000 tons. The reported amount caught that year was at 6,400 and in 2011 it had risen to over 12,000 tons, mostly consisting of sharks. Reporting of catches in Cape Verde is poor, to say the least, so the total amount of sharks caught is probably considerably higher. In addition, there is widespread illegal and unreported fishing, which presents yet another problem.

Special Permits allow EU longliners to fish sharks for their fins, allowing them to sever the fin from the carcass. The EU has one of the worst regulatory frameworks for shark conservation in the world, and an expanding Chinese middle class hungry for status symbols has pushed the entire Portuguese, and a substantial part of the Spanish longline fleets to obtain such permits. A cruel practice in shark fisheries is to dump the living shark, without fins, where it suffers a slow death of drowning. Severing fins also makes the data on catches unreliable, as the carcasses can be offloaded in a separate port.

Shark populations are in a dire state, and have plummeted over the last decade according to local marine conservation NGO Biosfera. When removing a top predator such as a shark from an ecosystem, a 'top down' effect may occur. One theory behind the disappearance of smaller coastal fish, is that sharks exerted a pressure, forcing the smaller fish to hide by the coast. Without sharks, small fish can take to the open waters and become difficult for locals to reach.

The Cape Verdean Coast Guard has limited resources for monitoring a vast marine territory that spans over 700 nautical miles, leaving foreign boats to fish at their own devices, often for sharks. Overfishing is essentially legalized in the EU-Cape Verde fishing agreement. If an EU longliner takes more than it should, it pays a meagre 60 Euros per ton, making overfishing a profitable business.

Each time an agreement expires, Cape Verde attempts to negotiate for better terms for what is their only viable natural resource, although the price paid for tuna by the EU is at 40 % below market value. it is not uncommon for treaties between developing countries and super powers to be accompanied by practices of coercion and corruption. In the case of Cape Verde a local researcher referred to it as being so much more than a treaty about fish, as it comes tagged with development aid.
People of Cape Verde are outraged and claim that the system is unjust, but they are fighting a very unfair battle. The tiny island nation has no contractual power against the European Union, as it is bound by an unequal commercial relationship, as well as development aid. More information on EU treaties with Cape Verde is available here.


The Cost of Sand Depletion

The people of Ribeira da Barca, having little alternative, are collecting the sand from their beaches. The fast-growing construction industry has a vast demand for raw materials and the villagers sell them the only thing they have left. Only years ago, the abundant sand dunes of the village formed a wide beach between the crops and the salty water. The shore is only stones. The water now crashes into the land, speeding up erosion of the island itself.
Every morning, thousands of residents on the island of Santiago wake up early to go out collecting sand on the beach. The men dig the sand from the bottom with buckets, shovels and bowels and the women carry it back through the crashing waves. The sand is brought by the rivers in the rainy season and comes back transported by the wind and the waves, such is the natural cycle. But this cycle is being severely disrupted as the islanders, desperate to sell the sand to provide income for their family, take it away before it can be replenished.
As long as the fishermen are prevented from returning to the sea to sustain their families, the sand will continue to dissipate.
Sand depletion affects everything in Cape Verde; the ugly sight of scoured beaches dissuades tourists from visiting and hence a potential for revenue is lost. As the ecosystem collapses, poverty increases. Erosion of receding coastlines sweeps away houses on the shore and the entire ecosystem living in the sand, salt penetrates the fresh water tables, which has severe effects on agriculture and potable water.


Future Prospects

All is not lost, and there are many working towards finding solutions and some projects aimed to empower Cape Verdeans are already in place. The FAO, together with the local government, is implementing simple underwater technologies in the form of suspended mesh structures that attract and create small ecosystems for fish, which provide local fishermen with a somewhat stable income.

This can only solve some of the problems that fishermen are facing, but can at least improve their lives in the meantime. Nonetheless, if the EU does not curb illegal and unreported fishing in the area, there will ultimately be no resources left to distribute.

Sandgrains aims to see a change in how Europe fishes abroad, and to reach out to a wider audience that can work together towards making this happen. In 2012 the Common Fisheries Policy will be reformed for the first time in a decade and a positive outcome will also benefit Cape Verde.  At home the EU must change its legislation banning loopholes like Special Permits, and abroad  it should survey the state of sharks in Cape Verde and fish sustainably according to accurate information. Fishing agreements should also not permit for surplus catches, nor result in a competition with locals over food. The Sandgrains team is currently working with international NGO's and members of the European Parliament. We are working towards confronting and challenging this issue and to engage others in a grassroots effort .