Consigned to a watery grave

The West African harbour city of Nouadhibou is Mauritania’s economic capital and home to the world’s largest ship graveyard. Berny Sèbe led an expedition to document the graveyard before it disappeared in an EU-funded clean-up
Flat, barren, windy, treeless and devoid of drinking water, the peninsula of Cape Blanc in Mauritania doesn’t exactly welcome visitors. Even the Moorish nomads who inhabited the region preferred to pitch their tents elsewhere. The peninsula, however, features a vast bay that’s well protected from the rollers of the Atlantic – the largest shelter for ships between Tangiers and Dakar.It also happens to have some of the world’s best fishing grounds off its coast. This fact was enough to convince a handful of Frenchmen to attempt to overcome the harsh conditions to found, a few years before the First World War, the commercial settlement of Port-Etienne. They brought fresh water in from Dakar and even Bordeaux, and soon the port was thriving. Today, Mauritania’s two major exports, iron ore and fish, are channelled through what has become Nouadhibou, the country’s economic capital and one of its largest cities, with a population of more than 100,000. Nouadhibou also plays host to one of the world’s largest ship graveyards, home to more than 100 trawlers of various origins, some sunken, some still afloat, but all hopelessly damaged and slowly rotting under the sub-tropical sunshine.The wrecks, which are found to the south and northeast of the city, represent both a hazard to shipping and an ecological threat, and the EU has offered to fund a programme to clear up the graveyard as part of the €430 million (£292 million) five-year fishing rights buy-out it signed with the Mauritanian government in the summer of 2001. The imminent disappearance of this unique phenomenon on Saharan shores led to the organisation of the Oxford University Expedition to Mauritania,the object of which was to record the graveyard and evaluate its sociological impact upon the local population.

Outdated vessels
“Port-Etienne started to work as a port thanks to a wreck,” explains Philippe Tous, a technical adviser to the Mauritanian Institute for Oceanographic and Fisheries Research (IMROP). The wreck in question was the Chasseloup-Laubat, a French Navy cruiser used in the 1920s as a floating landing stage.Since then, the bay has never been completely free of old, corroded boats. However, the origins of the current crowded graveyard can be traced to the 1980s. “The Mauritanians had little experience in industrial fishing, but with the nationalisation of fishing resources implemented from 1980 onwards, many chose to invest in vessels,” explains Boudbouda Ould Ahmedou, a former shipowner who is now an environmental consultant.Unfortunately, the new companies often bought old boats that were no longer competitive; most went bankrupt and dumped their outdated vessels in Cansado Bay. Although they were abandoned at a reasonable distance from the coast, storms and strong currents pushed most of them ashore. They were joined by ships downgraded following fraudulent insurance claims or the misuse of government loans, and the graveyard expanded steadily.“The ships’ graveyard has to be understood in the wider context of the fishing industry in Nouadhibou, at both artisanal and industrial level,” says Princeton and Oxford graduate and expedition member Paul Holland.The type and sheer size of some of the ships reflects the exceptional wealth
of Mauritanian waters, which was mentioned by European navigators as early as the 17th century. Mauritanian society is primarily agro-pastoral, and the marked preference for meat meant that the internal market for fish long remained negligible. For some time, the major destination for the country’s fish was Las Palmas in
the Canary Islands. However, the Mauritanian government has now realised that considerable profits can be made from this resource; the fishing industry accounts for around ten per cent of GDP, more than half of gross income from exports and more than a quarter of the state’s taxes.

Floating coffins
Unlike in the ship graveyards in countries such as Bangladesh, there has been no concerted effort to dismantle Nouadhibou’s wrecks – Mauritania is a major iron ore producer, so there’s little need to recycle the metal from the old ships. However, that isn’t to say that the graveyard doesn’t act as a source of income to the city’s inhabitants. The half-sunken vessels act as fish breeding grounds, and local fishermen place small nets among the wrecks. They check them using ‘floating coffins’ – makeshift rafts made from various bits of floating junk wrapped in a piece of net – moving around without paddling using a web of ropes tied between the vessels.
The graveyard is also a direct source of employment. “It generates informal jobs such as mechanics in charge of taking out parts, fishermen and guards,” says Abdou Daïme Dia, a sociologist at IMROP, who collaborated with us on our sociological study of the ship’s guards. Unguarded vessels are immediately stripped of all removable equipment; most of the second-hand spare boat parts on display in the well-stocked shops of the informal market come from the graveyard. Hence, owners who hope to one day reuse their boat hire guards.For around 20,000 ouguiyas (£40) per month, the guards take two-to-four-day shifts, living either in basic shelters on the shore or on board, regardless of whether the boat is still afloat or aground in the shallows. Many live quite comfortably on board, living on fish caught on lines left hanging from the bow. “Of course, I like the peace, the sea and the nice wind that blows all the day,” says a guard by the name of Marwan. “There are worse jobs, really. But the problem is when the boss is away. Sometimes, they forget to pay you and you are penniless.” Although the guards and their families survive because of this awkward cemetery, most of them – especially those who used to be sailors or fishermen – believe that the wrecks are an eyesore and should be removed.Although the agreement to remove the wrecks was signed almost six years ago, there has still been little movement. The plan is to dispose of the wrecks in the deep waters in the middle of the Baie du Levriere, where trawling is forbidden. There, they will form an artifical reef that should stimulate fish breeding.There are clear benefits associated with the ships’ removal, but as we packed up to leave, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that this wonderfully surreal sight would one day be no more. 

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