Our survival depends on the ocean

20th Dec 22 by Lia Aodha, Fisheries Project Manager & Frank Mechielsen, Executive Director Feedback EU

This is about our fish, he said. This is about African fish.

Often presented as a sustainable alternative, Feedback has shown over the past years that farmed fish production is based on a highly unsustainable mode of production, including, but not limited to, its reliance on wild fish as feed. To satisfy the rapidly growing sector’s ongoing demand for wild ‘feed’ fish, these are increasingly sourced from food-insecure West Africa, where stocks are already under pressure following decades of overfishing of the region’s waters by foreign vessels. Recently, Feedback travelled to Dakar to discuss this issue with grassroots organisations representing coastal communities affected, and to kick off our newest fish campaign, Notre Poisson (Our Fish) – a collaborative three-year campaign focusing on the fishmeal and oil industry in the region and its links to Europe.

Widely presented as a healthy, climate-friendly protein alternative to meat, a way to protect fish stocks and ‘solve world hunger’, most consumers are unaware that lots of the farmed fish we eat are fed wild fish in the form of fishmeal and oil.

Each year almost a fifth of the world’s marine catch is reduced to fishmeal and oil, the majority of which is used to produce feed for the aquaculture industry – today, the world’s fastest-growing food production sector.

To satisfy the sector’s demand for wild fish, the fishmeal and oil industry has expanded into West Africa. Focusing on Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia, the number of factories in the region has boomed from 5 to 49 in the past decade.

Today, over half a million tonnes of small pelagic fish, enough to feed over 33 million people, are instead caught, reduced, and exported—from a region dependent on fish as a vital source of affordable protein and micronutrients—to feed farmed fish and livestock elsewhere. These same small pelagic fish are the main source of income for thousands of fishermen and female traders and processors across the region.

While most of the fishmeal goes to China, Europe—home to several of the world’s largest aquafeed companies: Cargill Aqua Nutrition/EWOS, Skretting, Mowi and BioMar (all of which are involved in the trade of fishmeal and oil trade from West Africa)—is the largest importer of fish oil from the region.

Home also to some of the largest farmed fish producers in the world, well-known European retailers are sourcing from companies with supply chain links to these four aquafeed companies. More directly, European firms have invested in factories in West Africa.

Since 2018, Feedback has established a robust body of evidence on the damaging socio-ecological impacts of feed production for the fish farming sector and campaigned to reform aquaculture, so it delivers the greatest nutritional value for the least environmental impact, does not contribute to destructive fishing, deplete fish stocks, or worsen global food injustice.

To date, this work has largely focused on Europe. Our newest fish campaign, Notre Poisson (Our Fish), now combines this work with a collaborative three-year project comprising partners in Britain, the EU, and West Africa.

Our collective goal is to secure legislative and policy change via a three-year programme of coordinated research, investigation, and advocacy designed to influence politicians and policymakers and equip civil society and consumers with the knowledge and tools to demand policies and actions that protect ecosystems and support food sovereignty of West African communities and nations.

They steal our fish and jobs

At the end of November, we organised a three-day project kick-off meeting with our partners in Dakar, Senegal. Also in attendance, were representatives of several grassroots organisations from Senegal, Mauritania, and the Gambia, who provided first-hand testimony of the devastating impacts of the fishmeal and oil industry on local communities across the region.

According to a report published by the FAO earlier this year, the rapid expansion of the industry in the region has had negative impacts on fish stocks and fishing livelihoods. The social benefits of the industry to the region have been limited and have been “accompanied by threats to livelihoods, employment, food security and nutrition, and the health and well-being of local communities.”

Reflecting this, “they steal our fish and jobs” was a common theme over the course of our discussions together. The devastating impacts of the diversion of catches from human consumption to the production of fishmeal and oil for export on the availability and affordability of fish were particularly salient. The implications for women fish processors and traders are especially acute.

Stressing the severity of the problem, Diaba Diop, president of Réseau des Femmes de la Pêche Artisanale du Sénégal (REFEPAS), an organisation that represents women fish processors and traders, warned “our survival depends on our ocean”.

Undelivered promises from factories, in terms of jobs, and direct environmental and health impacts, in terms of environmental pollution, smells, and consequent impacts on tourism were also highlighted by participants from across the region. Drawing on his own experiences in the Gambia, Biochemist Ahmed Manjang (CETAG) highlighted just how serious these were.

Adding to these, participants shared stories of the historical, as well as the ongoing, decimation of fish stocks off the West African coast, more generally, by foreign fishing interests and the knock-on implications of this in terms of illegal migration from the region.

In Kayar, Maty Ndaw, a woman fish processor and member of the Taxawu Kayar Collective—who this autumn, began historic legal proceedings against the fishmeal factory located on the edge of their town—shared, “we see our children migrating and dying in the ocean”. Located in the Thiès region, 36 miles northeast of Dakar, artisanal fishing is the main economic activity in Kayar, employing and feeding the population of roughly 18,000 people. The Collective represents a cross-section of the community, most of whom are engaged in fishing or fish one way or another.

We had travelled to the fishing village to hear about the Collective’s more than a decade long struggle against the factory there. Originally owned by Spanish company Barna, the factory was sold this summer to Senegalese owned Touba Protéine Marine.

While there, a street in from the white sand beach full of colourful pirogues, we witnessed near-empty processing facilities. Once worked by over three hundred women fish processors, today, these traditional facilities are used by less than fifty. Another street in, modernised processing facilities are unused. Without fish, the facilities lie idle.

Direct competition with the fishmeal factory for fish, alongside declining catches, means processors have been priced out of the market, with knock-on implications in terms of availability of fish for the local population. According to the FAO, the impact of the fishmeal and oil industry on food security and nutrition in Senegal, where almost half of the country’s protein comes from fish, is considerable.

Across the road from the fishmeal factory, at the lake on the edge of Kayar, clear evidence was visible of the waste dumped by the fishmeal factory. This lake connects to the town’s water supply. Its pollution forms the basis of the Collective’s legal action against the factory.

An ongoing trajectory of stolen resources

Controlled by foreign investors and reliant on catches from already precarious stocks, that the fishmeal and oil industry in the region is threatening fish stocks, food security and livelihoods in West Africa is by now well documented. The lived realities of those from around the coasts are testament to these impacts.

The Kayar case was dismissed by the judge in November on account of there being reasonable doubt that the factory was the cause of the water pollution. The appetite of local, national, and cross-national communities and organisations, however, to unite and work together to tackle this industry is strong.

The problem is also clearly recognised by communities as part of an ongoing trajectory of stolen resources from the African continent.

Implemented together with West African partners RAMPAO, Greenpeace Africa, ADEPA, CAOPA, SRFC, PRCM, alongside DeSmog and Lancaster Universities, in close collaboration with grassroots organisations representing coastal communities across the region, we want to force change in this industry, and those related to it, by turning this issue into one of key concern for a broad group of civil society actors to campaign jointly in West Africa and in Europe.

Ultimately, we want to see better regulation of the industry in the region, and an end to the use of fish fit for human consumption by the industry. As part of this, we will work to increase pressure on companies involved in or related to this sector to hold aquafeed companies who source from West Africa, and aquaculture companies who source from these, accountable for their sustainability promises.

During our discussions in Dakar, Mansour Brahim Boidaha, president of ONG Zakia, an organisation working on this issue in Mauritania, where the boom in this industry has been especially concentrated, pointed out that people from Europe should know that the fish from West Africa is processed to fishmeal and oil, with little benefit to the region’s population.

Summing up the nature of the problem, representing Senegalese small-scale fishermen, Abdou Karim Sall, president of Plateforme des Acteurs de la Peche Artisanales du Sénégal (PAPAs), highlighted the problem wasn’t one just relating to fishmeal, but of their being, their identity. This is about our fish, he said. This is about African fish.

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