One of the world’s richest fishing grounds

One of the world’s richest fishing grounds

Mauritania’s fishing sector is a prime example of how the country is seeking to develop its food production industries by boosting the sustainable exploitation and local transformation of its resources


The upward trajectory of Mauritania’s economy is being supported by its increasingly dynamic fishing and agricultural industries. In 2022, for example, the nation’s fish exports brought in a record $759 million, 23% above 2021’s total. The fishing sector currently represents 4%-6% of Mauritania’s gross domestic product and 30%-50% of its export volumes, with the industry’s outputs reaching about 60 international markets. Even so, it has the capacity to contribute much more, says Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghef, director general of La Société Mauritanienne pour la Commercialisation de Poisson (the Mauritanian Fish Marketing Company/SMCP): “40%-45% of our exceptional fishing potential of around 1.6-1.8 million metric tons a year remains unexploited.” 

The semi-public SMCP, which is 70% owned by the state and 30% by local industry players and banks, is dedicated to helping the sector realize its capabilities. “SMCP was created in 1984 to promote, develop, export and market fishing products. Historically, it had a monopoly on marketing, however the sector and the company have evolved. It no longer owns any product, but it still plays a vital role in marketing and remains the only entity authorized to export,” explains Waghef. “Today, our top priority is the promotion and enhancement of Mauritania’s fish products. We place particular emphasis on ensuring the quality of our products and on ensuring that quality is appreciated in international markets. Beyond this main role, SMCP’s vision encompasses the preservation of our fishery resources, the creation of added value and jobs, plus judicious exploitation of the sector’s potential.”

Most of that potential is in Mauritania’s Atlantic exclusive economic zone that covers 200 nautical miles and constitutes one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. The country’s coastal waters are home to nearly 600 species of marine life, over 200 of them having commercial value, which include cephalopods like octopus, cuttlefish and squid; deep-water fish such as seabass, bream, grouper and sole; shellfish; tuna; and pelagic species that swim near the surface, including sardinella, sardine and mackerel. 

“All Mauritanian fish products are of exceptional quality and are recognized as being among the world’s best, especially in the cephalopod category,” Waghef asserts. This quality has helped the country to become one of the five biggest suppliers of octopus worldwide. It exported about 40,000 metric tons of octopus in 2022, equating to around 8% of global production. “Cephalopods such as octopuses are high value. However, our potential in pelagic fishing is particularly remarkable. Those species are lower value, but they are abundant,” reveals Waghef.

The industry provides Mauritanians with over 220,000 direct and indirect jobs and is split into two sub-sectors: artisan fishing, which accounts for about 70% of employment, and larger-scale industrial enterprises that produce goods for export. The industry is entirely privatized, he points out: “The state intervenes in regulation, quality and marketing, leaving the private sector to take charge of most other operations. The objective of public intervention is to preserve the image of Mauritania and product quality.” 

SMCP’s rigorous oversight of that quality is supported by other entities. “For example, the coastguard ensures the traceability of products’ origin, fishing date and legality, while a Ministry of Fisheries center inspects goods and guarantees their compliance with buyers’ standards. Within SMCP, we ensure that no product is exported without these controls having been validated. We also have our own quality controllers that check, weigh and certify each item,” Waghef states. 

SMCP has a research center dedicated to maintaining the sustainability of fishery resources as well, he adds: “It carries out assessments, supervises the fishing effort and we observe four non-fishing months for biological rest each year. In addition, all vessels are given an annual quota based on this center’s recommendations and they must cease activities when those are reached.” 

Once validated, SMCP exports the fish, which mainly goes to Europe and Japan. “Some of our products are processed in Europe and then re-exported to the US. Until now, America has not been a direct sales target for us, but our ambition is to establish direct relationships with this market,” reveals Waghef.


Addressing the industry’s challenges

While the sector’s potential is clear, it faces challenges. “These include policing our 450-mile coastal zone to prevent illegal exploitation by foreign actors. The government has invested in better managing that and our National Center for Oceanographic Research and Fisheries as well as our coastguard play a crucial role in this,” he says. Other challenges present profitable opportunities for inward investors, according to Waghef: “The first concerns trawlers specializing in pelagic fishing. These are substantial investments and national players generally do not have the means to make them. Conditions for investors are transparent: by bringing their own vessel, they can obtain a license and a fishing quota until our potential is saturated.”

The government has invested in consolidating fish landing, cold storage, primary processing and export capacities, which are sufficient to handle current catch volumes. “However, if we increase our fishing in the future, additional investment will be necessary in these areas,” he notes. At present, over 90% of the sector’s exports consist of whole frozen fish or basically processed goods and another major opportunity for investors is more complex transformation. “We are ambitious to significantly increase the locally added value of our products within the next three years,” Waghef states. Incentives to encourage processors are mounting up, he adds: “The Nouadhibou free zone offers rapidly available facilities and efforts are underway to develop a new investment plan for the sector.”

Investors are beginning to take advantage of this opportunity. For instance, 2022 saw the inauguration of a local entrepreneur’s $16-million freezing, storage and sardine canning factory. And this October, Norwegian company Star Seafood announced its intention to invest nearly $110 million into a facility for manufacturing Omega 3 fish oil capsules, fish filleting, canning and shrimp aquaculture.  

Waghef, who is a former prime minister of Mauritania, is optimistic about the future of not just the country’s fishing sector, but the nation in general: “With its stable governance, consultative climate and solid economic prospects, our country is on the right track for sustainable and inclusive development.” 

Sustainable development is a particular concern for both fishing and an equally underexploited agricultural sector, which contributes about 10% of GDP and employment for around 50% of the population. That is because Mauritania is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts like rising coastal and land temperatures, droughts and floods, explains Minister of the Economy and Sustainable Development Abdessalam Ould Mohamed Saleh. 

“Addressing climate change is a priority and one focus of our new cooperation with the US’s Millennium Challenge Corporation. We are working to promote adaptation measures by supporting farmers to better manage water and land resources, and to introduce good agriculture and livestock practices. Mauritania is also part of the Great Green Wall Initiative to combat climate change and desertification, a multibillion-dollar program launched by African countries and supported by the European Union and others, including US philanthropic institutions,” he states. “On the mitigation side, Mauritania is not a significant emitter of greenhouse gases, but the global climate action agenda offers a unique opportunity for us to tap into our huge renewable energy potential to accelerate the energy transition.”