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Outlaw Ocean Podcast: How One Third of All Fish Caught Become Fishmeal

An aerial view of a fishmeal plant near a beach in The Gambia
Image courtesy of The Outlaw Ocean Project

Published Oct 24, 2022 2:50 PM by Ian Urbina

The oceans are running out of fish. To slow down that problem environmentalists pushed for fish farming, or aquaculture. This was supposed to be the solution for a problem, but ended up being a problem on its own. This industry became too big and too hungry. To fatten the farmed fish faster they started feeding the high-protein pellets called fishmeal made from massive amounts of fish caught at sea. Now, more than 30 percent of all marine life pulled from the sea goes to feed other onland fish. 

To explore this upside-down situation, The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington D.C, traveled to West Africa for an offshore patrol where hundreds of Chinese and other fishing boats trawl for fish meal production, cratering the local food source and polluting the coastline.

The fifth episode of The Outlaw Ocean podcast, from CBC Podcasts and the L.A. Times discusses fish meal - which was meant to slow down the seas from running out of fish but it’s actually accelerating the problem - and the grim consequences it’s brought to Africa's smallest country, the Gambia. Listen to it here:

Gunjur, a town of some fifteen thousand people, sits on the Atlantic coastline of southern Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa. In the spring of 2017, the town’s white-sand beaches were full of activity. Fishermen steered long, vibrantly painted wooden canoes, known as pirogues, toward the shore, where they transferred their still-fluttering catch to women waiting at the water’s edge. The fish were hauled off to nearby open-air markets in rusty metal wheelbarrows or in baskets balanced on heads. Small boys played soccer as tourists watched from lounge chairs. At nightfall, the beach was dotted with bonfires. There were drumming and kora lessons; men with oiled chests grappled in traditional wrestling matches.

But just five minutes inland was a more tranquil setting—the wildlife reserve known as Bolong Fenyo, meant to protect 790 acres of beach, mangrove swamp, wetland, and savanna, as well as an oblong lagoon. A marvel of biodiversity, the reserve was integral to Southern Gambia’s ecological health—and, with hundreds of birders and other tourists visiting each year, to its economic health, too. 

But on the morning of May 22, the Gunjur community woke to discover that the Bolong Fenyo lagoon had turned a cloudy crimson overnight. Dead fish floated on the surface. Some residents wondered if the apocalyptic scene was an omen delivered in blood. More likely, water fleas in the lagoon had turned red in response to sudden changes in pH or oxygen levels. Soon, there were reports that many of the area’s birds were no longer nesting near the lagoon.

A local microbiologist concluded that the waters contained double the amount of arsenic and forty times the amount of phosphates and nitrates deemed safe. Pollution at these levels could have only one source: illegally-dumped waste from a Chinese fish-processing plant called Golden Lead, which operates on the edge of the reserve.

Golden Lead and the other factories were rapidly built to meet exploding global demand for fish meal—a lucrative dark-yellow powder made by cooking and pulverizing fish. Exported to the United States, Europe, and Asia, fish meal is used as a protein-rich supplement in the booming industry of fish farming, or aquaculture. West Africa is among the world’s fastest-growing producers of it: more than fifty processing plants operate along the shores of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Gambia. And the volume of fish they consume is enormous. One Gambian plant alone takes in more than seven thousand five hundred tons of fish a year, mostly of a local type of shad known as bonga—a silvery fish about ten inches long.

The residents of Gunjur were told that Golden Lead, the Chinese-owned fish-processing plant, would bring jobs, a fish market, and a newly paved three-mile road. In reality, the plant's putrid odor closed a booming beachfront hotel, the local fish market is dwindling and the winding, pot-hole filled road is a safety concern for residents and tourists alike.

For the area’s fishermen, most of whom toss their nets by hand from pirogues powered by small outboard motors, the rise of aquaculture transformed their working conditions. Hundreds of legal and illegal foreign fishing boats, including industrial trawlers and purse seiners, began crisscrossing the waters off the Gambian coast, decimating the region’s fish stocks and jeopardizing local livelihoods. A local fisherman who sold his catch at the Tanji market, north of Gunjur, said that two decades ago bonga were so plentiful that they were sometimes given away for free. But the price of the fish has soared in recent years, and for many Gambians, half of whom live in poverty, bonga is now more expensive than they can afford.

Today, Gambia exports much of its fish meal to China and Norway, where it fuels an abundant and inexpensive supply of farmed salmon for European and American consumption. Meanwhile, the fish that Gambians themselves rely on are rapidly disappearing.

Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC that focuses on environmental and human rights concerns at sea globally.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.