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The fisherman from Senegal keeping Spain’s vessels afloat

WATCHING news of Senegalese migrants arriving on the Canary Islands stirs memories for Babou Diouf of the same perilous journey he undertook 17 years ago and his arduous path to his new home – Burela, on Spain’s northern coast.

Diouf, 46, a fisherman from Bassoul in Senegal’s Sine Saloum delta, was part of a migration surge in 2006 from West Africa through Spain’s Canary Islands, which lie around 100 km (60 miles) off Africa’s northwestern coast.

Fishermen Diouf, 46, Tony, 39, from Indonesia, Eduardo Garcia, 49, from Spain, and Mamadou Sarr, 38, from Senegal, arrange the nets after fishing in the Atlantic Ocean near Sisargas Islands, Galicia, Spain, November 24, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Nets are seen on the floor of the Sarridal ship before departing on a fishing trip to the Atlantic Ocean, near Cedeira, Galicia, Spain, November 24, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

More than 30,000 migrants arrived that year, fleeing poverty exacerbated by a dramatic plunge in coastal fish stocks, partly due to industrial fishing by European Union states, according to academics, NGOs and migrants.

The 2006 record for migrant arrivals through the Canaries was broken last year. Nearly 7,000 died attempting the crossing in 2023, according to the rights group Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders).


“To see rafts arriving in Spain is very difficult,” said Diouf. “To cross the ocean without knowing what you’re facing – you’re facing death.”

Diouf looks at the Cantabrian Sea while he works on the Sarridal ship, near Burela, Galicia, Spain, December 12, 2023.  REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Deprived of his livelihood in Senegal, Diouf ventured north. Today it is his fishing experience which has secured him a new life in Spain, where the EU’s largest fishing fleet, shunned by ever more Spanish workers, is recruiting foreigners to survive.

The fishing port of Burela has 44 nationalities among its 9,450 residents, including 90 men from Senegal and 244 from Cape Verde, according to the mayor’s office.

Foreign workers make up about seven out of ten crew in Burela’s fishing fleet, said Juan Carlos Otero of Burela’s boat owners’ association.

Devotees enter to pray inside the Mosque in a converted hangar near Burela’s port, region of Galicia, Spain, December 1, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The Peruvians were the first to arrive in 2000 when locals left to work in a new steel plant, said Otero. Indonesians are so valued for their longline fishing skills that boat owners pay for their flights to Spain.

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Others, like the Senegalese, find work through word of mouth or by turning up at the dock where, if they have residence permits, they are then offered contracts.

Immigration, largely welcomed by locals, is changing the town. Diouf regularly visits a recently built mosque. Cape Verdean women serve coffee and breakfast at A’Mares, a restaurant in the port.

At sea

Working alongside Indonesians, Senegalese and Spaniards on the Sarridal vessel, Diouf is a whirl of activity, hauling in nets and cleaning and boxing hake during 14-hour shifts.

The boat’s captain, Francisco Gonzalez, said Spain’s fishing industry can’t survive without migrants.

Gonzalez looks at a map inside the Sarridal ship before a fishing outing to the Atlantic Ocean, at Cedeira’s port, Galicia, Spain, December 11, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

“There are very few young Spaniards so the future is in training immigrants.”Captain Francisco Gonzalez Garcia, 41.

In Senegal, Diouf tried to provide for his family, fishing from pirogues, or dugout canoes. He also worked on French and Spanish vessels, picking up the Spanish language, but he struggled to make ends meet.

Earning a living from fishing in Senegal and West Africa has become increasingly challenging as fish stocks decline, especially after the arrival of industrial fishing companies, mainly from Europe and China, which have signed commercial fishing rights agreements with West African countries.


Diouf collects the nets on his last day of work at the retired ship ‘Virxen Dos Milagros,’ in Burela’s port, Galicia, Spain, October 20, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The EU pays Senegal 1.7 million euros ($1.85 million) a year for the rights to fish about 10,000 tonnes of tuna. Two vessels are also authorised to fish for hake.

Ignacio Fresco Vanzini, senior policy advisor at Oceana, an ocean conservation NGO, said some 57% of the stocks in Senegalese waters are estimated to have collapsed.

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Two boats from Burela currently operate off the Mauritanian coast under an EU fisheries agreement, said Sergio Lopez, manager of Burela’s fish producers’ organisation.

Mamadou Sarr, 38, a fisherman from Senegal, uses salt water to wash the catch, on the Sarridal ship at the Cantabrian Sea near Burela, Galicia, Spain, December 11, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
A box filled with blackbelly rosefish is seen before being auctioned at Burela’s port, Galicia, Spain, November 30, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Diouf blames his government for selling the best fishing zones to international operators.

“What do the Senegalese get from this? Nothing,” he said. “They take resources from Africans and now they say Africans arriving in Europe are a headache.”

A European Commission spokesperson said EU vessels from Spain and France fish under agreements that follow international rules. “The EU fleet is only fishing on the surplus of the allowable catch the coastal state considers that its fleet is not able to harvest,” the spokesperson said.

($1 = 0.9185 euros)

Fishermen prepare for an outing to fish line-caught hake in the South of the United Kingdom and Ireland, on the Matalenas ship at the port in Burela, Galicia, Spain, December 4, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Path to Burela

It took Diouf more than a decade to reach the northern port.

He paid 500,000 West African francs ($830) for a place on a pirogue from Mauritania to the Canaries. After a three-day journey, he spent a month on Gran Canaria before being flown by authorities to mainland Spain. He said police in Madrid released him as an undocumented immigrant, warning him not to steal or sell drugs and wishing him good luck.

He found his way to Almeria in the south to work picking vegetables. The work was inconsistent, poorly paid and gruelling. One courgette farmer trained his dog to bark if he took a break.

 Babou holds his daughter Saly Diouf Santos, 1, next to his stepdaughter Itziar Lopez Santos, 11, after he and his colleagues collected the nets from the retired ship ‘Virxen dos Milagros,’ in Burela’s port, Galicia, Spain, October 20, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Diouf, bursting into tears, said 2008 was the worst year of his life when he had only three weeks of work. His luck turned in 2010 when another farmer helped him apply for legal residency. He then heard of the chance to work in fishing and in 2018 made his way to Burela.

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He now makes enough to rent a three-bedroom apartment where he lives with his Spanish wife Silvia, his two-year-old daughter Saly and his 11-year-old stepdaughter Itziar, while also sending money home to his older children in Senegal.

His brother, who arrived from Morocco to mainland Spain on a raft and two nephews, who made the same journey as Diouf via the Canary Islands, have since joined him in Burela.

But even with workers such as Diouf, Spain’s fishing industry may not survive, some experts warn.

In Burela, where about half of the fleet practices longline hake fishing, the industry could collapse within three years after the EU included the practice within its restrictions on bottom trawling, said Lopez.


Diouf is now preparing for the day when he can no longer fish, learning how to handle chainsaws and strimmers, and drive trucks when he is not working at sea.

The exhaustion and lack of sleep don’t faze him.

“It’s been like that all my life,” he said. “I sleep when I can, not when I want.”

The Wider Image
Photography: Nacho Doce
Reporting: Nacho Doce and Charlie Devereux
Additional reporting: Gabriela Baczynska and Bate Felix
Writing: Charlie Devereux
Photo editing: Marta Montana Gomez, Eve Watling and Maye-E Wong
Text editing: Alexandra Hudson
Design: Marta Montana Gomez and Maye-E Wong