West Africans fight back against the exploitation of their oceans

Fishmeal industry expansion is driving environmental and resource issues along the African coastline

Protest about fishmeal factories in The Gambia - February 2022

West Africa was once a sanctuary for pelagic fish species but that has been threatened by large-scale fishmeal investment, putting livelihoods, as well as the ocean, at risk.

The coastal belt of Mauritania, Senegal, and Gambia has been littered with imposing, metal structures – fishmeal factories. The fences are tall and threatening, preventing the communities outside from seeing what is truly happening to their fish. It’s another dark secret, a growing business attracting a huge amount of capital.

The fishmeal business is not new in West Africa. It was once sustainable, only using the trimmings of fish locally, but now, with unprecedented demand from global markets, the plants can no longer depend on the trimmings alone.

Nowadays, the fishmeal plants ruthlessly harvest a thousand tonnes of fish daily. Over fifty fishmeal plants have been built in West Africa already – 40 in Mauritania, seven in Senegal, and three in Gambia, according to the Greenpeace Africa report.

These plants operate by grinding raw fish into oil and powder, the end products are often shipped across the world to feed equally destructive fish farms. This devastating industry does nothing to provide for the West African market, instead depriving them of the cheapest source of protein.

The above report states that more than half a million tonnes of fish caught in West African waters are processed as fishmeal and fish oil to feed the Asian and the European market.

This amount would be enough to feed 33 million people in a region already subject to significant food insecurity, and where fish prices have rocketed in many areas as fish populations decline.

Many experts fear further food insecurity. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report revealed that in Senegal, where three more huge fishmeal factories opened between 2015 and 2019, the industry was “likely increasing the risk” of overexploitation of sardinella and bonga, two pelagic fish on which communities depend.

Many fishmeal plants in West Africa are owned by Chinese companies, but increasingly we are seeing other countries, such as Spain, setting up on the West African Coast, with catastrophic consequences.

This is an industry which is also having a tragic impact on our oceans – toxic waste is pumped back into the ocean using giant pipelines. Attempts have been made by locals to desperately remove the pipes, in an effort to protect the environment, but to no avail.

Worryingly, the governments of these countries are not showing any sign of addressing the socio-economic and environmental impact of these fishmeal plants, despite blatant exploitation.

Tourism is one industry which is feeling the devastating impacts of fishmeal. In Gunjur, Gambia, tourism accounts for a huge amount of the country’s GDP. Visitors are being driven away by fishmeal pollution, often toxic smells emanating from the factories.

“We are losing our jobs because of fishmeal operations, if visitors are not coming then we will close as there will be no money for us,” says Karamo Touray.

Touray, a seasoned tourism worker, has been forced into looking for another career as tourism has proven to be continuously ravaged.

“The ocean is polluted because fishmeal plants in Gunjur discharge its wastewater in the sea, which makes it hard to swim,” he added.

Touray is among the hundreds whose livelihoods are dangling by a thread.

Government inaction, threats to jobs and the local environment, as well as outrage caused by an array of false promises made to the people to garner support for fishmeal factories, has led to mass protests.

In Senegal, groups of youths are organising themselves to confront the fishmeal business. In Kafountine, southern Senegal, youths are challenging the authorities over the fishmeal plant building, desperate to save their life-giving oceans and shorelines.

Photo credit - Tim Webster - Reel media Film - Fish for processing into FMFO at the Kartong plant

“We are known because of tourism and we must preserve our environment and livelihood,” declares Bubacarr Sanyang, a popular youth activist.

Greenpeace, the leading organisation campaigning against unsustainable fishmeal production, is demanding that fishmeal and fish oil importers, including EWOS/Cargill, Mowi, Skretting, and BioMar, stop sourcing fishmeal and fish oil from West Africa.

In October 2021, Greenpeace intercepted a fishmeal oil tanker.

“Activists from the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in the English Channel have intercepted a tanker transporting fish oil taken from West Africa, as an investigation by Greenpeace Africa reveals recent trade figures showing that the fishmeal and fish oil industry in the region has grown at an alarming rate during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Greenpeace published.

“This is big business stripping life from our oceans and depriving our fishing communities of their livelihoods. The science is clear, it will soon be too late. They must stop now,” said Dr. Aliou Ba, Oceans Campaign Manager for Greenpeace Africa.

The impact of the fishmeal industry is far beyond its unsustainability; it creates a hostile business environment for the local fish dealers who are scrambling to secure their future and protect their shorelines.