But rising sea levels and new international regulations are forcing them to change how they work.
Though most fishermen here learned from their fathers, who learned from theirs, most say the work today is nothing like it was for older generations.
“Our parents were lucky – traditional rules in the fishing community were well established and respected,” fisherman Ousmane Diop told VOA. “But things have changed now. Families are expanding and using new materials.”
According to Diop, the saturation of the market is one of their biggest challenges. Most fishermen in Saint Louis are polygamous – taking multiple wives to have as many sons as possible. The more sons they have, the more they can expand their family staff on their fishing boats.
But other challenges have led to increased market saturation – namely, increased security in the neighboring waters of Mauritania.
For years, many fishermen based in Saint Louis fished in Mauritania’s maritime territory. But over the past year, the Mauritanians have increased both their own fishing as well as security in their waters. Senegalese fishermen who risk going there are fined, detained, or even shot.
“If you pay them they’ll give you back your equipment and your catch – but if you can’t pay they’ll confiscate everything,” says Malick Fall, a fisherman, who says he was stopped by Mauritanian authorities twice last year.
“Maybe they’ll detain you for a day or two before they let you go,” he told VOA.
Rising sea presents challenge
But despite his difficulties with coast guards in Mauritania, Fall, along with many other fishermen, says the biggest challenge they face is rising sea levels.
“This is why we can no longer anchor our boats on the beach – we have to come around into the city and leave them along the river,” Fall says.
In Saint Louis, residents call the rising sea levels the “avancé de la mer” – which in French literally means the advancing of the sea. On what used to be beaches, waves crash just feet from buildings – many of which have been damaged or destroyed.
In addition, many operations related to the trade have been pushed inland. Tents under which women used to dry and cure fish on the beach have moved to a cramped space further inland.
“We have suffered huge losses,” Aminta Seck, a fisherman’s widow, who dries fish cured with salt, told VOA. “The main challenge we face here is how tight our space is. Between the smell of fish and the heat we suffocate here… when we were on the beach at least we had some fresh air.”
Seck has to continue her work. Her husband died at sea, and her sons are in school. Unlike many children who leave school early to start fishing with their fathers, Seck’s children continued their education. So for now, she alone has to provide for her whole family.
According to the World Bank, land is receding as much as 10 meters per year in high-risk areas throughout West Africa. Just last year, the World Bank worked with the Senegalese government to relocate 10,000 people along the coast in Saint Louis.
But fishermen and their families are reluctant to move far from the coast, as their livelihood depends on it.
“We as fishermen, we just have this one activity – from the times of our grandparents to current times,” Moustapha Dieng, secretary general of the Fisherman Union of Senegal, who is also descended from fishermen, told VOA.
“From father to son, we are fishermen. We just have this one job. When it goes well, it goes well. When there are challenges, we suffer, but we continue.”