Read, Debate: Engage.
All opinions in this section are those of the author(s) and do not necessarly reflect the opinion of FairPlanet.
June 08, 2023

It's not just about emptying oceans. It is also about human lives

tags:#overfishing, #Fisheries, #Gambia, #oceans
by:Marta Colomer

It is late afternoon at the seaside in Sanyang, a town in the west of Gambia. An increasing number of people are rushing to the beach to unload fish. 

A man stands not far from the fish dump, gesticulating incessantly and directing the workers. Our curiosity leads us to him to introduce ourselves and ask some questions. He is the supervisor of a fish processing factory that stands on the edge of the beach and transforms these fish into fishmeal and fish oil.

That day, they had only received two tonnes of fish. The transporters (carrying baskets full of fish) were constantly making trips to the lorries that will take the fish to the factory. He could not, however, conceal his disappointment. It was not a good day for him, and he was hoping for the other pirogues (the narrow local canoes) still in the sea would bring more fish. 

The quantity of fish caught, as I saw, even on what was considered an “unlucky” day, was truly amazing. An endless ballet! One might naively believe that the sea contains unlimited quantities of fish and that it is an inexhaustible supply.

Thousands upon thousands of fish are harvested for processing into fishmeal, at a rate of about 4.5kg of fresh fish for 1kg of fishmeal. Yet what might be a profitable business for the fishmeal and fish oil companies is coming at a terrible cost for the residents of Sanyang.

More fish and profits for the factory, another story for Local residents

With a blank stare, the faces of the inhabitants of Sanyang we spoke to were full of concern about their situation: high unemployment, food insecurity and an increasingly blighted environment.

According to the FAO, between 2015 and 2020 the number of food insecure people in The Gambia has increased from 5 to 8 percent. In recent years, overfishing by foreign trawlers combined with the operation of fishmeal and oil factories has left the Gambian coastline depleted of fish at an alarming rate.

According to the European Commission, Gambia exports about 20,000 tonnes of fish each year through the activities of fishmeal factories, foreign industrial vessels, and fish processing companies.

In Sanyang, a fishmeal and fish oil factory owned by a company called Nessim Fishing and Fish Processing Co Ltd. (Nessim) has been established in 2018. Since then, life in the community has gradually changed. I have seen this for myself. I visited Sanyang for the first time in June 2021 as part of an Amnesty International delegation with my colleague Michèle Eken.

In 2021, the sight of tonnes of pelagic fish destined for Nessim fishmeal factory was already unbelievable. Hundreds of baskets full of fish were hurriedly carried on the heads of dozens of men. The men rushed to carry and unload as many 50kg baskets as they could, as they were paid by the basket. It was like a gymkhana. In the frenzy, some of the fish would fall to the ground and women on the beach, without wasting any time, would pick them up and put them in their bags so that they could sell them later at the market and get some money to support their families. 

A worsening situation

By March 2022, ten months after our first visit, the buzzing activity around the beach had diminished considerably. The local artisanal fishermen confirmed this when we sat with them on the beach, while they were sewing their nets and drinking tea.  

They told me that it is increasingly difficult to get fish from the sea. They blame the big Senegalese pirogues working for Nessim and the huge ships from China and Europe for emptying their sea of tonnes and tonnes of fish; fish that are either directly exported or processed into fishmeal to feed farm animals like pigs or voracious fish in the aquaculture business in Asia, America or Europe. 

They are convinced that foreign ships and fishmeal factories, once they have emptied their sea and destroyed all their ecosystems and environment, will pack up and go to do the same thing elsewhere, leaving a trail of destruction and broken lives behind them. 

Every person in Sanyang has their own source of frustration and anger at the trawlers and fish factories.

One of the restaurant owners on Sanyang beach who has been operating there since the 1990s claimed to me that everything was going well for him until the Nessim factory was installed in 2018, 100m from his restaurant. The bad smell, the smoke coming from the factory, the dead fish thrown by fishermen when Nessim decides not to take the fish drove tourists away from the local shops and the beaches of Sanyang, he explained while holding back tears with difficulty.

We experienced and witnessed all of this first hand during our visits.

In one of the smoking rooms on the beach, surrounded by ashes and pieces of wood, we met Adja, a widowed woman in her forties with five children aged from seven months to 10 years. With a smile on her face, she explained that she had started smoking fish four months earlier, following the death of her husband, in order to support her children.

Yet the scarcity of fish quickly reduced her profit margins as fish became more and more expensive. There are weeks when she manages to make a profit of 300 dalasis, about 5 euros in total, to feed her children and other weeks when, despite her hard work and after paying for wood, fish and the rent for the premises, she has almost nothing left to take home. Despite the precariousness of her situation, she is determined to carry on and not lose hope. 

Women working in the gardens around the fishmeal factory we spoke to said they had also been severely affected by the presence of the fishmeal factory on land that was previously used for crops and rice. Many of them have been there for more than 20 years, growing cabbage, tomatoes, rice or cucumbers to pay for their children's school fees. 

According to their story, one day in 2017, as they arrived at the gardens, they saw bulldozers destroying their rice fields. A few weeks later, the construction of the fishmeal factory began.

All the women who spoke to Amnesty International claim they were not informed nor consulted about the arrival of the Nessim factory, as most of the negotiations were conducted without much transparency.  

After being in Sanyang and listening to so many stories of suffering from community members, I came away with a lesson in mind: we should all care about what is happening in Sayang because overfishing is not just emptying the oceans, endangering marine species and destroying the environment, it is also damaging human lives.

Marta Colomer is an Amnesty International senior campaigner in the Dakar regional office. She leads the organisation’s campaign and advocacy work in West and Central Africa’s anglophone and Latin countries.

Image by Paul Einerhand