They are known as the “Imraguen”, a Berber word which means “fishermen” or “people who fish while walking on the sea.”
Believed to descend from the Bafour people, the Imraguen are an ethnic group or tribe of Mauritania and Western Sahara. In the 1970s, they were estimated at around 5,000 but now number only about one thousand, living in fishing villages in the Banc d’Arguin National Park, located on the Atlantic coast of Mauritania.
To date, the Imraguen are the only people authorized to live in the Park and to fish in its rich fishing waters.
The largest coastal park in Africa with a surface area of 12,000 km, the Park, which is said to be a “treasure trove of marine life”, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1989.
It boasts one of the world’s largest concentrations of fish, molluscs, crustaceans, turtles, as well as sharks, species of rays, and dolphins.
Living within the park and with no freshwater, the Imraguen have, over the years, been dependent on supplies collected outside the park or from those provided by the navy, said a report by ramsar.org.
Traditionally, the men deal with the fishing of mullet and shade-fish in the shallow waters of the park whilst the women produce roe, tishtar (small pieces of dried and crumbled mullet) and mullet oil, passing on this knowledge and techniques to their children, the report added.
With wooden sailboats or just wading into the shallows and flinging their nets, the men have maintained their traditional fishing methods, including working with dolphins to catch more fish.
As ecofund.org writes: “From the shore, when a man indicates the passage of a school of fish, others enter the water with nets on their shoulders. By striking the water with sticks, they attract dolphins which create a barrier that prevent fish from escaping to sea. Driven to the shore, the mullets are surrounded by men and captured.
“Upon capture, the fish are opened, cleaned and dried by women. Every part of the fish is valued, including the ovaries of pregnant females, slightly salted and dried to make the “poutargue”, and the head and organs, boiled in water to extract an oil rich in trace elements and vitamins known as “dhên”.”
It is documented that a few generations ago, the Imraguen used to whistle the dolphins to bring them near the shore and catch all the mullets that always followed the dolphins.
In recent years, this cooperation between the Imraguen and the dolphins as well as other traditional fishing methods seems to be dying due to threats from immigrant and industrial fishing activities.
What is more, competition and the high demand for shark and ray fins compelled some Imraguen to shun their traditional practices and move towards motorized shark hunting.
In the late 1990s, shark fins were in greater demand, especially in the Asian market. Believed to give strength and vigor to men, reports said a kilo could cost $500.
With concerns from conservationists and NGOs in the early 2000s, the Imraguen agreed to hand over their nets in return for cash to preserve the shark and ray species in the Park.
But not without concerns.
“In just one day, I used to capture 400 rays with my nets which are going to be banned from now on. What I will receive (as compensation) I will get only once. I used to get money every day from this fishing,” a 71-year-old fisherman, Soueilim Ould Bilal, said in 2004.
Nevertheless, with their desire to respect and guard the riches of the Park, the Imraguen have returned to their traditional fishing activities, resorting to mullet and shade-fish from the park’s waters.
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