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OUAKAM BEACH, Senegal (Reuters) - Saliou N'Diaye comes from a long line of once-wealthy Lebou fishermen who call the Cap Vert peninsula on Africa's western tip home. But he hopes his children don't follow him to the sea.
"There are no fish left now," he said, fingering the blade of a knife and surveying the dozens of brightly painted wooden boats on the cliff-framed beach at Ouakam north of Dakar.
"We spend a week at sea to bring back $10 worth of fish. It is not a life I want for my children."
It is a story echoed in villages all along West Africa's coast, an area once famous for its rich fishing grounds but which experts say is being ruined by ever-increasing illegal trawling by international vessels.
European and Asian fleets, drawn by the zone's shoddy maritime surveillance, are taking as much as $1 billion worth of illegal catch each year from West Africa's waters to feed voracious demand back home, experts say, threatening a key source of local food and employment.
Fishermen say declines in catches have led many to attempt do-or-die boat rides to Europe, a symbol of hope in a poverty-stricken region, and hundreds of rickety boats are believed to sink among the Atlantic's white caps each year.
"Pirate fishing is having a direct impact on some of the world's poorest people," said Pape Samba Diouf of the World Wildlife Fund in Dakar. "The biggest problem is the inability of coastal states in the region to patrol their own waters."
The global fishing fleet takes in about 90 billion metric tons of marine fish per year and experts estimate that a fifth of that is captured illegally, particularly in regions ill-equipped to enforce their maritime boundaries.
The European Union said it has passed strict regulations barring vessels from engaging in illegal fishing. "They have to act in full transparency to the specific rules coming from international agreements," said European Commission fisheries spokesman Oliver Drewes.
But environmental groups say trawlers are flouting the regulations, and making use of lax enforcement at ports like Las Palmas in Spain's Canary Islands to shuffle illegal catches in with legitimate ones before shipment to European markets.
"The situation continues to be bad and is very likely getting worse," said Steve Trent, director of Environmental Justice Foundation which has taken surveys of fishing vessels active in the area. He said as many as 60 percent of the fishing vessels off Guinea's coast are unlicensed.
In the palm-fringed Ivory Coast fishing village of Lahou, sandwiched between a thin sliver of lagoon and the Atlantic ocean, fishermen stand in the waves casting their nets.
Residents say the fish on which they depend are fast disappearing and blame "Chinese" boats, as they call them, because they say most of the crews look east Asian.
"It's no longer profitable to fish," said Henry Joel Segui, as he stood in the sand repairing his net. "There are boats which come and cause us trouble, those Chinese over there," he said, nodding toward the black shape of a trawler out to sea.
West Africa's best fishing grounds -- stretching from Mauritania in the north to Angola in the south -- have traditionally teemed with tuna, dorado, and other fish species drawn by a nutrient-rich upwelling current.
That resource has for centuries supported fishing communities with food and employment in a job-scarce region where 75 percent of available protein comes from the sea.
While data on local catches is hard to find in the region, Ivory Coast says its reported catch fell 30 percent last year and is down to about a quarter of its recent peaks.
Jeanson Djobo Anvran, director of Ivory Coast's fishing regulator, said the illegal trawlers came from China, Korea and all over Europe.
"We don't have the means to properly oversee our fishing grounds," he said. "To counter these pirates requires international cooperation."
Africom, the U.S. military command center for Africa, has been running training programs for West African navies and coast guards to combat piracy and illegal fishing though experts say a lack of boats and money for fuel is a key stumbling block.
In Lahou, Ivorian fish seller Helene Lizier held up her measly wares of two small fish from her plastic bucket. "Everyone is suffering because of those boats," she said.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Abidjan and Pete Harrison in Brussels; editing by Philippa Fletcher