Guinea-Bissau: Creating linkages between shorebirds and people through traditional shell hunting in the Bijagós

The Bijagós archipelago stands as a major overwintering site for migratory shorebirds on the East Atlantic flyway where several bird populations are currently declining. The archipelago is also home to the Bijagós people, known for their rich cultural heritage and their complex land management systems designed to protect natural resources, based on sacred rules and woods.

Shorebirds and community members both depend heavily on the benthos, found in the archipelago’s vast intertidal areas. The Bijagós people do not only consider shellfish as a major source of proteins but also use them for rituals and ceremonies that are part and parcel of their culture, selling shellfish having recently become an important economic activity. Two of the most harvested species are the bivalves “Combé” (Senilia senilis), found in great abundance, and “Lingron” (Tagellus adansonii). Although they are opportunistically caught for food by shorebirds, as findings from the analysis of stomach content and direct observation suggest, these bivalves are also ecosystem engineer species, influencing the availability of other prey species for shorebirds.

As traditional practices are gradually abandoned and new economic opportunities explored, natural resources such as shellfishes run the risk of being overexploited, which might result in a lesser abundance, indeed a depletion of these resources in some areas. Since the density of shorebirds is determined by the availability of their preys, shellfish harvesting may greatly impact the abundance of shorebirds.

To have a better understanding of how shellfishes are collected, their cultural and economic significance and the way in which the benthos can be protected through local conservation actions, interviews were conducted with women shellfish farmers on some islands where the management approach differs by hinging on traditional practices. A study was carried out on (A) the community protected marine area of the Formosa island, where the Bijagós’ cultural values have so far been well preserved; and (B) the Bubaque island, the tourist centre of the archipelago where several religions have recently arrived and where internet and social media take young generations away from traditional practices, with hope for more substantial economic benefits.

The study helped to gain an insight in several socioeconomic aspects of shellfish hunting, although one of the most interesting findings was related to how the evolution of shellfish stocks was perceived in recent years.

In Formosa, learning from the past local extinction of these bivalves, the community put in place a number of regulations to ensure that these resources remain abundant for future generations. Indeed, Formosa’s bivalves are regarded as a source of protein but also as a means to engage young generations in cultural ceremonies, the performance of which depends on the availability of resources. As a result, most of the women collector respondents in Formosa indicated that it was now easier to collect bivalves.

Conversely, in Bubaque, the rapid decline in the number of these bivalves is a source of serious concerns, as all the women collector respondents strongly agreed that collecting these has become more difficult. The concerns raised are particularly pronounced in the villages near to the island’s capital city where villagers have reported a depletion of stocks and an almost total disappearance of shellfishes at the end of the fishing season.

These findings point to the vulnerability of benthic resources which, if poorly managed, are likely to run out rapidly, but if well managed, may replenish themselves and be used in a sustainable manner for longer periods of time without detriment to shellfish stocks. The Bijagós’ local management measures seem to be effective in protecting the benthic resources in Formosa, a protection that benefits all other species that also live on these, as is the case with shorebirds. The cultural values of the Bijagós are therefore a major force cut to fit the conservation of local biodiversity. The Bijagós people provide a perfect example of effective traditional conservation systems, which needs to be showcased both within and outside the community to ensure it is safeguarded.

Authors: Ana P. Coelho1, Aissa Regalla2, Theunis Piersma3,4 & José A. Alves1,5

  1. Dep. Biology & CESAM, University of Aveiro, Campus de Santiago, 3810-193 Aveiro, Portugal;
  2. Institute of Biodiversity and Protected Areas of Guinea-Bissau (IBAP), CP - 70, Bissau, Guinea-Bissau;
  3. NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Department of Coastal Systems, PO Box 59, 1790 AB Den Burg, Texel, The Netherlands 4 Rudi Drent Chair in Global Flyway ecology, GELIFES, University of Groningen, P.O. Box 11103, 9700 CC Groningen, The Netherlands
  4. South Iceland Research Centre, University of Iceland, Lindarbraut 4, IS-840 Laugarvatn, Iceland;