Saint-Louis a fishing hub of Senegal, and most or all of the fishermen here live with their families on the peninsula just to the west of the island of Saint-Louis.
(I note that the use of the term "fishermen" here is on purpose because I was told that the fishermen here are indeed all men.)
The peninsula is small, long, thin, and populous. Our tour guide said 26,000 people live there, and it sure seemed dense when we visited. There were people everywhere, with and especially large number of children because the families in this community are so large.
The cramped buildings bely the inhabitants' economic prosperity. As our tour guide described it, the peninsula's fisherman are rich by Senegalese standards. Every day, year-round, they can go out on their boats to the waters off Senegal and Mauritania, catch fish, and sell them to a caravan of fish transporters and resellers who drive in and out of Saint-Louis.
Even with much of the profit going to the resellers, fishing gives the fishermen a steady stream of income that most Senegalese do not enjoy. As a result, they can afford luxuries that most Senegalese cannot, like multiple LCD TVs. And each fishing family may have two or three fishing boats, each of which may be worth around $30,000.
While today this peninsula is bustling, challenges loom. The fishermen families' way of life is threatened by at least two factors.
The first is erosion. The Atlantic Ocean crashed against this peninsula with astonishing intensity on the day that we visited, even though it was said to be calmer that day. We were told that the peninsula may cease to exist within 25 years, and any visitor would believe it. Here is a photo of the Atlantic Ocean, viewed from the peninsula. Old building structures are clearly visible in the wash:
Given their incomes, I suspect the people here could afford to buy real estate and relocate to elsewhere in Saint-Louis or nearby. Life would go on. Unfortunately, the psychological toll may be high. This peninsula is their ancestral home: many ancestors of those living here are buried in a large cemetery in the peninsula's center.
The second factor overfishing, and I present it here as more of a hypothesis. (Take it with a grain of salt, until you see actual data on it.) I have heard about overfishing being a problem in many places around the world, and anecdotally it seems true here because I was told larger and bigger fish were available many decades ago compared to today.
Again, this is not based upon a scientific or detailed study into Senegalese and Mauritanian fish stocks. That said, if the fishery really is in decline, then the people's economic livelihood is under longer-term threat.
I am not sure what could replace fishing on the peninsula (maybe fishing elsewhere in the world and sending back remittances?) because it is a total way of life here. Our guide told us that basically all the boys in this area aspire to become fishermen, while all girls in this area aspire to become successful wives with many, many children. Meanwhile, our guide told us there is only one elementary school, a shockingly small number for a youth-heavy neighborhood with a population of 26,000. Life on the peninsula revolves around the fishing industry and tradition. Education and diversity of economies - two possible economic escape routs - seem to be nonfactors.
The attitude of the people on the peninsula seems to be "live day to day." By their own standards I imagine many are content with the status quo, as hard as it is to imagine, but as erosion and other longer term trends become daily realities, peninsula life here will have to change.
At some point, something here will have to change. It is a public challenge here in Senegal, for this community of about 26,000 people, to find a satisfactory outcome.
One final note: this community is not representative of the rest of Senegal. It is localized and distinctive. Certainly, what I saw in the fishing neighborhood bears little resemblance to what I see in the town of Gueoul in Louga, western Senegal, where we are spending most of our time.