Fishing for catastrophe

Tim Webster

Alfonso Daniels

Changing Markets

Country of production
The Gambia

Year of production

Shining a light on a dark and secretive industry.

Since time immemorial, human beings have lived and thrived off the bounty of the sea. For most of history, humanity’s needs have been met without compromising the health of marine ecosystems. However, as this report goes to press in late 2019, decades of industrial fishing have subjected our planet’s fish stocks to such pressure that ocean ecosystems are now critically depleted, and marine biologists worry they may soon reach the point of no return.

Against this grim backdrop, aquaculture is often presented as the solution – not only to the ecological damage unsustainable fishing techniques are wreaking under the surface of our oceans but also as a rapidly scalable source of protein for communities vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition. The notion that seafood farming can both feed the world’s poor and relieve pressure on wild-fish stocks, giving delicate ecosystems the opportunity to bounce back, is a seductive one and makes intuitive sense. However, in reality, the aquaculture industry continues to extract precious finite resources from the very oceans it claims to protect.


Every year, in an extremely inefficient process, billions of edible fish caught in the wild are diverted from direct human consumption and used to feed the voracious aquaculture industry instead, through the production of fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO). In FMFO production hubs across the Global South, fish catches are turned into fishmeal at a rate of 5 kilos of fish for 1 kilo of fishmeal and exported abroad. A report published in July 2019 found that the Scottish salmon industry alone uses roughly the same quantity of wild-caught fish to feed its salmon as the entire adult population of the UK purchases in one year, and that it will require a further 310,000 tonnes of wild fish per year to meet its ambitions to double in size by 2030.12 While these so-called ‘reduction fisheries’ have existed for centuries, and ground-up fish have historically been put to a wide variety of uses, including as fertiliser for crops and inputs for animal feed, aquaculture is rapidly displacing other applications and now accounts for 70% of FMFO consumption.13

The types of fish destined for reduction fisheries are mainly species lower down the marine food chain, which are often in high abundance and tend to form dense schools. They are generally plankton feeders and are preyed on by larger predators for food. They include not only small pelagicC ‘forage’ fish (such as anchovy, sardine, her- ring and mackerel) but also invertebrate species (such as krill). All of them play an important role in the marine environment because the entire marine food web depends on them; they are the principal means of transferring energy from plankton to fish, marine mammals and seabirds. Overfishing down food webs is therefore unsustainable, and can have large impacts on the ecosystem.14 These fish are also a major source of protein for millions of people living in poor coastal communities, especially in West Africa, where the FMFO industry’s demand for small fish competes with demand for direct human consumption; today, almost 70% of landed forage fish are processed into FMFO, representing roughly 20% of the world’s total catch of wild fish.

The relentless economics of the industry leave fishing communities with no option but to take part in supplying FMFO factories for onward export to the global market. However, our investigations found that fisherpeople in all three countries we investigated are clear-eyed about the consequences for them; they see the current slump in catches as a precursor to the inevitable destruction of the fisheries that sustain them. The collapse of local economies that, for centuries, have been built around the sea seems an intolerably heavy price to pay to ensure wealthy consumers in high-income countries are able to enjoy uninterrupted access to premium seafood products, such as salmon, which is fast becoming a weekly staple in diets across the Global North and, increasingly, China.

Fish and seafood provide about 17% of the world’s animal protein.

Changing Markets

The Gambia

Reelmedia’s part of the investigation took place in The Gambia in May 2019. It comprised primary research, obtained through on-the-ground field visits and interviews with activists and locals; secondary research, consisting of interviews with academics, journalists and ministers; and an in-depth review of official statistics, media reports and supply-chain data. The aim of the investigation was fourfold: to establish whether the three operational fishmeal plants continue to cause serious social and environmental damage to the region; to understand any food-safety implications of FMFO production in The Gambia; to identify the ownership structure of the plants and uncover their place in the international supply network; and to investigate the food-security implications of the FMFO industry for the local population.

The local tourism industry is a key employer in the area, but the smell is driving visitors away from Sanyang beach, resulting in a significant drop in sales. An even larger reduction in reservations was reported at Kartong, where the JXYG factory is located. Many tourists are drawn to The Gambia by the prospect of fishing expeditions – an opportunity that has also been jeopardised by the damage to fish stocks caused by fishing for FMFO.

The Gambia is Africa’s smallest nation, and one of its poorest, with debts of around 130% of GDP107 and a poverty rate of 48%. Since transitioning from dictatorship in 2016, The Gambia has attempted to attract foreign invest- ment to kickstart a bankrupt economy. As such, it is one of many African states to have formed close ties with China (see Box 2.1).

One of The Gambia’s key natural resources is the abundant fisheries that lie off its coast. The country’s fishing grounds contain large stocks of pelagic (mid-ocean) fish, such as sardinella and bonga, which migrate up and down the West African coast and provide a vital source of protein for 50% of the population,108 as well as providing jobs for 200,000 people (out of a population of 2.1 million).109 Gambians consume 25 kg of fish per capita, compared to a African average of 8.2 kg.

Despite possessing some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, the nation’s food insecurity rate has risen from 5% to 8% over the past five years, in part due to fluctuating populations of Bonga fish (also known as shad), which experienced a crash of 40% between 2013 and 2014 according to FAO data. This drove prices up by 50% – something already keenly felt in the local fish markets our investigation team visited. A saleswoman, Sulayman Bah, said: ‘three years ago the market was good, we had lots of fish but there’s much less now. The price of fish was cheap but now it’s three times more expensive because it’s just not so available.’

Global production of aquafeed grew by 4% in 2018 to 40 million metric tonnes.

D. Gibson, 2019

Read more and share

Read the full report ‘Fishing for Catastrophe’ here.

For how to stop this escalating crisis, visit