Fishmeal Factories Grind The Gambia’s Natural Resources into Powder
Young Gambian men balance heavy boxes of fish on their heads as they hurry across the slick floor of a Chinese-owned fishmeal factory. They dump the fish onto a large pile and hustle back to a trawler for more. At the Golden Lead fishmeal plant in Gunjur, supervisors dock the pay of workers who move too slowly.
Ahmed Manjang, a microbiologist and environmental activist from Gunjur, posted video of the factory scene on Twitter.
“How can a developing country like The Gambia sustain this level of the pillage of [its] most valuable natural resources?” he wrote.
In The Gambia and other West African countries, it’s a familiar scene that infuriates locals, many of whose families have depended on artisanal fishing for generations. About 200,000 Gambians rely on fishing and related activities for income. The Gambia has fought illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in its waters, including that done to feed the international appetite for fishmeal.
China, the world’s top importer of fishmeal, uses the ground, dried fish mostly to feed shrimp — the communist nation is one of the world’s top shrimp exporters — and pigs.
Local conservationists say the fishmeal factories and IUU fishing deplete once-thriving fish populations, destroy local ecosystems, pollute the environment and cripple tourism. When boats can’t unload their catch at full fishmeal factories, locals say the haul is often discarded at sea and later washes ashore.
“The beaches that were once beloved by tourists are covered in reeking fish carcasses. The toxic water reaches local farming, and harvests go to waste,” Sulayman Bojang, a small-business entrepreneur and local activist with the Gunjur Youth Movement, told The Guardian. “We want to stop exploitation at the hands of the fishmeal plants, but with The Gambia being one of the poorest countries in the world, we stand no chance against the Chinese corporations.”
In Gunjur, on southwestern Gambia’s Atlantic coast, residents sued Golden Lead seeking “reparations for environmental degradation,” Quartz Africa reported in 2019.
After the factory opened in 2016, residents say dead whales, turtles, dolphins, eels and rays washed ashore. A year later, a nearby lagoon changed color, and its birds and fish started dying, driving away tourists. The Gambian National Environment Agency ordered the factory’s waste pipe removed, but the factory later installed a new one at the center of Gunjur Beach, according to Quartz Africa.
Golden Lead is one of three Chinese-owned fishmeal factories that operate in the city of 17,500 people. The Gambia is Africa’s smallest mainland country.
IUU fishing of small pelagic fish such as bonga and sardinella also takes critical sources of protein off Gambians’ plates, as prices of the once-abundant species soar.
“Our food security is under serious threat,” Manjang told China Ocean Dialogue, a nonprofit organization focused on environmental issues. “The majority of Gambians live on less than $2 a day, and locals are in direct competition with the fishmeal factories.”
Manjang said in an open letter to The Gambia’s Ministry of Fisheries that Golden Lead alone exports 32,000 kilograms of fishmeal powder out of The Gambia every month. The majority goes to China.
Golden Lead is one of about 40 fishmeal factories operating in the region, which includes Senegal and Mauritania, Greenpeace Africa reported in 2019. The environmental organization estimated that 4 to 5 kilograms of fish are used to make 1 kilogram of fishmeal.
It is difficult to know how much fish the factories use or how much fishmeal they produce, Dawda Saine, a marine biologist who heads The Gambia’s Artisanal Fisheries Development Agency, told The Guardian.
“They are not providing any data,” Saine said.