Test Design Lighthouse

Seaweeds and desert sand

A travel report by Kai Hoppe


I was not feeling particularly confident in preparing for our expedition. Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. On the other hand, of course, I was also looking forward to travelling in an area so far away from any “conventional” travel route. There was also the fact that I am very fond of both the sea and the desert, and in Mauritania the Sahara borders directly onto the Atlantic.


We wanted to find out whether it was possible to cultivate marine algae on Mauritania’s coastline, as well as whether this could provide any development prospects for the region. The idea behind this undertaking came from the physicist Bernhard Brand, who has already made similar investigations in north Africa.


Thanks to its various constituents, marine algae is of particular interest for a variety of applications, e.g. in the manufacture of foodstuffs. In particular favour of our expedition was the fact that red algae production (for the manufacture of agar agar) in neighbouring Morocco has already become a successful sector of industry. Moroccan firms are now utilising the coast right up to the areas of the West Sahara bordering with Mauritania. Despite this, there have as yet been no serious efforts in Mauritania either to exploit the natural algae growth or to grow algae commercially. In addition, scientific studies on the Mauritanian marine flora are rare and generally incomplete. In collaboration with a partner in the region, the plan was for us to gather some preliminary knowledge in the country itself, thanks to support from the Lighthouse Foundation.



Northward bound


Starting from the capital Nouakchott, our intention was to travel along the coast and look for suitable stretches of water. The region around the Banc D`Arguin national park in the north of Mauritania seemed to be particularly suitable. For long sections of that route there is no coastal road, however (and no proper roads in general, at least not as we know them). The connecting roads to the large seaport Nouadhibou in the north mainly run directly along the beach and can only be used at low tide using a four-wheel drive vehicle. Along with the car, we also had to hire a driver who was familiar with the locality.


The tides dictated that we start out from Nouakchott at 4:30 in the morning in complete darkness. All we could see in the headlights were the eyes of the odd jackal as we went by. Mohammed, our pick-up driver, set off at a daredevil pace. On gravel roads we rattled our way along the 9 miles to the shoreline, rocked back and forth over the dunes and then across the smooth, solid sand just below the high-water line at up to 50 mph. On a map we had marked out the rocky sections of coast where we hoped to find the types of algae we were looking for, and entered this information into our GPS. And there was indeed considerably more algae washed up on the beach at these locations than elsewhere. As the majority of the coast was made up solely of sandbanks, the algae barely has a chance to cling onto anything. The coast is too open even for seagrass which is able to set down roots in the sand; it would be washed away and ripped out during a storm.


We met 6 or 7 vehicles on the road, which was especially entertaining. Both drivers would drive at one another at full speed with headlights on full beam, and we couldn’t help wondering: “Hmm, so what happens if we both try to pass on the same side?“ At intervals we asked Mohammed to stop, and by the light of headlights and torches we gathered up what algae we could find. As dawn finally began to break, Mohammed used the opportunity to roll out his carpet and say his morning prayers.



Fishing villages at the edge of the Sahara


Late morning we finally reached Nouamghar, a small fishing village with an office belonging to the national park authorities. Here our authorisation to enter the national park was checked and our proposed arrival in Iwik, where the park headquarters are located, was announced via radio. This security measure was to be repeated later at all stations, presumably to ensure that they did not lose track of any tourists.


In the capital city we encountered only a reduced level of poverty, but in the small villages on the coast it was all too obvious. A few tourists and fishing are the only sources of income Iwik has. The poverty is reflected everywhere, in the meagre huts, the threadbare clothes, the refuse on the paths. Small huts made from corrugated iron or concrete blocks, with the floor generally consisting of pounded down clay. There were a few sheds for goats and sheep cobbled together from remnants of wood and wire, but the majority of the animals ran loose through the village. The fish had been taken off somewhere and the remains thrown away – it stank and everything was full of flies.


In the disastrous droughts of the 80s and 90s, over 90 % of the herds in the Mauritanian hinterland perished. The nomads were faced with the choice of either going to the towns or to the coast if they wanted to avoid starvation. This explains the extremely wide-spread traditional fishing industry, operated from the beach in boats between three and six metres long with outboard motors. Depending on the swell, launching into the water can be quite an adventure, as the surf is considerable even on quiet days. The use of motor boats is prohibited in the national park itself. Only sailing boats built to designs originating from the Canary Islands are used there. As the coast is sheltered by offshore islands, the boats do not need to be dragged up onto the beach.



In the Banc D`Arguin national park


The Bank D’Arquin national park is one of the largest in Africa. It covers an area of around 7,500 square miles and includes desert, islands, seagrass meadows and mud flats. Millions of water birds, who also live or make stop-overs in the German Wattenmeer national park, find an additional stop-over point or winter home here. Thanks to its sheltered location, it is the only place in Mauritania where the remainders of mangrove swamps can be found.


The centre of the national park is the village Iwik where we found something reminiscent of a campsite around 100 yards from the village itself. It was situated on a hill and could not be reached at high tide without getting our feet wet. The facilities were spartan: basic Bedouin-style tents and a communal hut with tables and chairs. The sanitary arrangements consisted of an oil barrel buried into the ground. No water, we had to bring that with us. Even the village inhabitants had not much more than 6 pints of dubious quality freshwater available per day, and even this had to be brought in by tanker.


Our tents proved not to be very stable. During the first night it rained, the cloth tents became completely saturated and collapsed under their own weight. During the second night there was a storm, and they were unable to withstand the wind either. So we slept in the hut.



To Nouadhibou


The journey along the beaches had been more comfortable than what was to come. To avoid the extensive salt flats on the way to Nouadhibou, we had to take a detour deep into the interior of the country. There were no tracks at all here, you simply pointed the vehicle in the right direction. On the back seat of our pickup with virtually no suspension, I was well and truly shaken up. And several car wrecks indicated that not all trips succeeded in making it through. A landscape of sand and boulders was interspersed with chalky cliffs thrashed bare by the wind. The only vegetation consisted of a few thornbushes and acacias which did at least provide a little shade during the obligatory tea break. At late evening we arrived, covered in dust and exhausted, in Mauritania’s largest port, Nouadhibou.


The port is located on the Cap Blanc peninsula which separates the Baie du Levrier from the Atlantic. The results of our local investigations did actually indicate that this bay is a suitable place for cultivating algae because it is the only sheltered location outside the national park. The port does conceal a certain risk for such an operation, however. Large quantities of iron ore are loaded into giant freighters here, which means that tons of ore escape into the sea: the trails of dust can be seen for miles. There are no environmental protection regulations to speak of, and dozens of ships lie rusting away on the beach in a bay close to the port. In a random sample we measured very high lead levels, amongst other things. As many types of algae store heavy metals, we needed to conduct more detailed tests on the water quality and the water currents before selecting a location for cultivation.



Algae cultivation on Mauritania’s coastline?


Using red algae to produce agar agar has become an important sector of industry in the neighbouring country of Morocco. This industry provides the country with an annual export income of approx. 40 million Euro. In total, around 500 workers are employed in this sector. In addition to this are around ten thousand seasonal workers during harvest time. It is primarily the Gelidium species of algae which is used, as well as Gigartina and Gracilaria to a lesser extent. These algae are harvested from natural stocks along the entire Moroccan Atlantic coast and for some years there has been a dramatic decrease in natural algae stocks which can be traced back to overcropping and incorrect cultivation methods.


Mauritania is more readily affected by warm tropical water streams than Morocco, and this produces a slightly different algae flora. The varieties typically found in Morocco, which prefer the rather cooler water of the Atlantic, can only be found in the area around the Cap Blanc (near Nouadhibou), the most northerly part of the country. In addition, large sections of the Mauritanian coast consist of a sandy subsoil which is less than favourable for growing large algae types naturally. Rich natural algae growth as found in Morocco with its reefs close to the coast cannot be expected in Mauritania.


For algae cultivation to be possible, the most likely location would be the sheltered bay Baie du Levrier near Nouadhibou. As the most important industrial centre and port in Mauritania, Nouadhibou also offers a qualified work force and the appropriate infrastructure for this type of endeavour. The conditions for economic activities have improved in Mauritania over the past few years: tax breaks encourage investment and there are plans to reduce customs duties for exported goods.


The use of natural algae stocks involves the risk of over-cultivation and unchecked harvesting. The better option would therefore seem to be an aquaculture plant, perhaps located close to Nouadhibou. There would be suitable places for algae farming in the sheltered eastern side of the Cap Blanc. Algae types of economic interest such as Gracilaria verrucosa and Gelidium sesquipedale occur here naturally, which means that it would not be necessary to “import” ecologically dubious foreign varieties.



Kai Hoppe is a marine biologist and is a partner of Coastal Research and Management (CRM) in Kiel, Germany

Bernhard Brand acts as a consultant in Morroco


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