By Monin Justin Amandè, PhD
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—The other day, I had lunch at a place that specializes in something called faux poisson. It’s an open-air stand where business is brisk, the prices are right and the fare is tastier than you might imagine.
But what brought me here was my study of an often-neglected biological and conservation concern—and of an idea that could reduce hunger and stimulate national economies. When the central issue is seafood sustainability, sometimes you have to step away from the ocean to understand what it’s really about. For example, here in Ivory Coast, if you’re hungry and short of cash, you drop by your neighborhood garbadrome. That’s a food stall that serves garba, a popular dish of cassava-based couscous, onions, chili peppers and salty, fried tuna.
The tuna is genuine, even though everyone refers to it as faux poisson (false fish). That’s because it doesn’t meet the standards of the dockside wholesalers who haggle over the day’s catch. The “false” rejects might include fish damaged in handling, undersized tuna, or non-tuna species. Fisheries in other parts of the world usually discard them at sea. But here, tuna-vessel crews keep the irregular catch for their own use.
Some of the fishermen’s share goes to feed their families. Some finds its way to vendors in the local marketplace, where faux poisson is snapped up by thrifty shoppers and by entrepreneurs like Ali, who runs the garbadrome where I ate.
Ali came to Ivory Coast from the Republic of Niger as a child about 30 years ago, among thousands of Nigeriens who left their homeland in search of opportunity. He found it in the economic capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, a city on the Gulf of Guinea.
Sometime in the 1980s, an unknown genius tossed together the first plate of garba, using faux-poisson tuna from the Gulf. It caught on fast. Hungry Nigerien-Ivoirian students, workers and job-seekers couldn’t get enough, and garbadromes by the hundreds popped up all over town. Ali opened a place of his own, which today serves about 500 meals a day, seven days a week. Now aged 37, he employs a staff of eight. What he and his colleagues sell is no fast-food luxury, but a dietary mainstay for hundreds of thousands of locals.
Ali, his business, his employees and his customers are all strands in a net of ethical, social and economic factors stretching from the local markets and canneries to the fishing vessels that ply the Gulf and the schools of tuna that swim in it. And the critical issue at the far edge of that net is what’s known, technically, as bycatch.
Here’s how it works: No fishing technique is surgically selective. In this part of the world, the usual approach is purse-seine fishing, in which a very large net—up to 2,000 meters around—encircles tens to hundreds of tons of fish. Inevitably, the net will corral other species of fish, or tuna below the size that canneries need for processing. Bycatch is almost impossible to avoid.
Aside from taking its toll on the ecosystem, bycatch generates extra work for the crew. According to regulations, they must try to separate bycatch from the target catch and return it to the sea—unharmed, if possible. Unfortunately, some of the discards are dead or dying before they hit the water, so enormous quantities of potentially edible fish are wasted. In a world where almost a billion people lack the protein they need to lead healthy lives, bycatch discards by fisheries worldwide account for many billions of pounds of fish lost annually.
However, as we’ve seen, edible bycatch that makes it to port finds a ready market. The volume is substantial—up to 10 percent of a single purse-seiner’s haul can consist of undesirably small tuna, damaged catch or non-tuna species, and about half of that will remain onboard to be sorted out ashore. Back in port, the buying, selling, transporting and preparing of faux poisson creates significant revenue, and hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs.
So it’s clear that there’s a disconnect between the well-intentioned but wasteful practice of discarding bycatch at sea, and the benefits that bycatch can bring if it’s retained and brought home. Further, retained bycatch can be monitored more effectively, for scientific and regulatory purposes.
It’s time for a more balanced approach to handling bycatch in coastal regions around the world. With support from the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, my team and I are gathering decision-making data that will help regulators and industry leaders develop a better way.
Certainly, we have much to learn before we can quantify the impacts of wasted resources on food security and local economies, let alone develop guidelines that could encourage markets and serve the hungry of the world. But the answers are out there. Let’s discover what they are.
Monin Justin Amandè, PhD, is a junior scientist at the Centre de Recherches Océanologiques, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. He holds a master’s degree in fishery science from Agrocampus-Ouest, and a PhD from the Montpellier 2 University. His doctoral research concerned the estimation, characterization and management of tropical tuna bycatch in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. His current research focuses on statistics and data analysis in tropical tuna fisheries. He is the scientific coordinator of the Collaborative Office of Data Collection in Abidjan, and the regional coordinator of OCUP, a program that places impartial compliance monitors on tuna purse seiners fishing in African waters.