Author: China Dialogue Ocean
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: November 2019
Once-peaceable fishing communities along the Gambia’s south-west coast have been split over the arrival of three fishmeal-processing factories.
At first, many locals believed the new industry would bring much-needed jobs, and village elders welcomed the pledges of financial support for building roads and local markets. But over time, local environmental groups grew increasingly concerned by pollution from untreated waste coming from the factories. Youths demonstrated, there were clashes with factory supporters and several protesters were arrested.
Local environmental groups grew increasingly concerned by pollution from untreated waste coming from the factories
Now more people are joining the campaigners’ calls for the three factories to be shut down amid growing concerns that overfishing for the three factories is depleting fish populations, a crucial source of protein and livelihoods for Gambians. Fishmeal is made by grinding up wild-caught species and predominantly used to feed farmed fish of higher value.
How the factories hit fish stocks and raise prices at local markets
Paradoxically, the beaches of Ndong’s village of Gunjur are strewn with decomposing fish: with no controls on the numbers fishing with the hope of supplying the factories, fishers often catch too many for the factories to process. Spoilt fish is dumped and washes up on the beaches.
Ndong, and other locals, increasingly blame their shrinking catches on the factories. Golden Lead was the first to begin operations in Gunjur in September 2016. Two more majority Chinese-owned factories have since opened in the fishing villages of Sanyang and Kartong, clustered along a 30km stretch of the south-western coastline.
Artisanal fishermen, such as Ndong, are finding they cannot compete with mechanised fishing trawlers and an armada of fishers paid in cash to supply the factories before local markets. Many of these come from neighbouring Senegal and Guinea Bissau. They are all going after the small pelagic fish, predominantly bonga and sardinella, that have been historically abundant in the Gambia’s biodiverse waters.
The Gambia is Africa’s smallest nation, enveloped by Senegal, its borders looping around its namesake river. But it has also become a global hub for the fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO) industry that is rapidly expanding on the coasts off north-west Africa. The majority of Gambia’s FMFO produce is exported to China, which has the lion’s share of the booming aquaculture market. It is also used for animal feed.
Two separate investigations by international NGOs – Greenpeace International and Changing Markets Foundation – have recently warned that the scale of Gambia’s FMFO production is unsustainable and the nation’s food security is under threat if the industry is not curtailed.
Greenpeace Africa’s “A Waste of Fish”, published in June, examines the impacts of fishmeal processing in Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia, where a total of 50 factories have sprung up in recent years. It is estimated that 4-5kg of fresh fish are used to make 1kg of fishmeal.
The report flags the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) advice to urgently reduce the intensity of fishing of bonga and sardinella in the sub-region, which are “essential to food security and livelihoods, particularly in Senegal and Gambia”.
Fishing and related activities are the main source of income for at least 200,000 people in the Gambia. Fish accounts for over half of the animal protein they consume. In the past five years, the proportion of people considered food insecure has risen from 5% to 8%, partly due to fluctuating populations of bonga fish as a result of FMFO fishing.
A deeply unsustainable industry
Groups of local activists from environmental and fisheries organisations in the FMFO-affected communities have been working together over the past two years to put pressure on the government to shut the factories down. So far, they have been fighting a losing battle.
The fisheries minister James Gomez reaffirmed the government’s support for FMFO production at the National Assembly in September, stating there were no immediate considerations about closing the factories. He has repeatedly claimed this position is based on data from annual surveys on pelagic resources such as bonga and sardinella that show “Gambian waters can accommodate up to five fishmeal factories.”
As well as contradicting the FAO advice, a senior UN fisheries official who wished to remain anonymous also disputed Gomez’s claim, saying “virtually no scientific fisheries studies have been undertaken in the Gambia”.
A wildlife reserve lagoon turns red
Instead, the FMFO industry is devastating a budding eco-tourism sector that is situated in the same area of sweeping, sandy coastline and mangrove swamps as the fishmeal plants. Lodge owners complain visitors are being driven away by their noxious side-effects.
Tourism is one of Gambia’s biggest employers and contributes 20% of GDP. Locally, the 15 or so basic eco-lodges that have developed in recent years have provided a lifeline, especially among youths where unemployment stands at more than 40%.
Golden Lead in Gunjur and Nessim Factory in Sanyang have been found to be in breach of wastewater regulations, with the factories accused of dumping untreated waste into the sea. In the case of Golden Lead, the freshwater lagoon in the nearby Bolong Fenyo wildlife reserve frequently turns an alarming shade of red.
The red colour is caused by phosphate that produces algal blooms
Environmental groups first found a waste pipe dug into the lagoon in May 2017. The red colour is caused by phosphate that produces algal blooms. Independent tests of water taken from the lagoon initiated by environmental groups found high levels of carcinogenic arsenate. They believe the pollution has killed fish and oysters in the river and mangrove swamps, and locals have reported skin rashes after bathing in the waters.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) revoked Golden Lead’s licence and sued the owners for environmental damages in June 2017. But operations quickly resumed after the firm paid an out-of-court settlement of $25,000.
The campaigners strongly suspect ministerial interference had blocked the NEA’s initial legal actions against Golden Lead. The activists filed their own civil case against the firm in 2017, which is still dragging through the courts.
In the past few months, activists say new waste pipes have been discovered in the sea off Gunjur, dead fish continue to wash up along the coast and the lagoon has turned red again.
Les Wathinotes sont des extraits de publications choisies par WATHI et conformes aux documents originaux. Les rapports utilisés pour l’élaboration des Wathinotes sont sélectionnés par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au contexte du pays. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.