The trucks are lined up on the beach, the rear doors open towards the ocean. On the ground there are piles of empty crates, every now and then a worker takes one and goes to meet small, coloured, pirogues reaching the beach loaded with fish.
We are at the Hann fishing pier in Dakar, Senegal. The typical boats of Senegalese artisanal fishing are returning with their daily catch.
When one reaches the beach, it is surrounded by people, a human chain unloading the fish and filling the crates. Some are destined for the nearby fishing market; others are loaded on trucks stationed on the sand. Some will be frozen and exported. Others, mostly small pelagics - will be carried to factories producing fishmeal and fish oil, exported to Asia and Europe as a key ingredient for animal feeds, especially for aquaculture.
"We don't just work with one factory, there are many intermediaries who come here to the beach every evening", Adama Thiem, fisherman from the Soumbédioune fish market in Dakar, tells us. "Every intermediary buys fish and takes it to his factory".
The fishmeal industry in recent years has been growing fast in West Africa, in Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia, along the routes of the Round Sardinelle. In 2019, Greenpeace counted "50 fishmeal and fish oil factories operating primarily in Mauritania and more recently also in Senegal and the Gambia".
"Today we are witnessing a proliferation of fishmeal factories all over West Africa and this creates several problems", says Moussa Mbengue, president of the West African Association for the Development of Artisanal Fishing (Wadaf). "Originally, these factories had the function of taking fishing waste and processing it. Today there are no more wastes to exploit, because the fish is scarce. Consequently, fishmeal factories no longer use waste and are fed with small pelagic fish".
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, small pelagics contribute significantly to the economy and food security of both coastal and inland communities, but suffer a "serious overfishing situation".
"In countries like Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia, fishmeal is almost entirely produced from small pelagics - like round sardinella, flat sardinella and bonga - that are usually considered the main and cheaper source of animal protein for thousands of people in the region", claims Djiga Thiao, technical lead of a 2020 FAO study about fishmeal industry and food security.
The fishing village - Kayar is a fishing village 60km north of Dakar. In 2019 a fishmeal factory was settled in the village by the Spanish company Barna. The company presents itself as "a small-medium enterprise specialised in fishmeal and fish-oil production from by-product", "committed with sustainability".
The factory in Kayar, however, suggests a different story.
"All the fishermen sell their fish to the factory", says Mor Mbengue, a local fisherman. "When the fishmeal factory arrived we were in a programme to restore fish stocks", claims Mbengue. "It encourages overfishing because, even if a fisherman is committed to responsible fishing, he has an incentive to catch juveniles to sell them to the factory".
According to Babacar Mbodji, another fisherman from Kayar: "Fishermen catch all kinds of fish, even the smallest ones, as factories need all kinds of fish to work".
As a result "there is not much fish anymore, the fish stock decreased a lot in recent years", says Mbodji.
A few meters from the beach there is a square, full of stone benches. On one or two banks there is a pile of small fish, sprinkled with salt. All the rest of the square is semi-abandoned.
"At the moment we are not working at all, there is no fish", says Binta Kama, a local female fish-processor.
The female fish-processors are a key figure in the senegalese small-scale fishing economy: thousands of women that buy freshly-caught fish, especially small pelagics, salt it or reduce it to powder to supply the nearby regions that have no access to the sea.
"We work with Burkina Faso or the Togolese", says Kama. "But in 2020 and 2021 we are no longer able to produce anything at all due to the fishmeal factory".
"They buy all the fish", claims Kama, showing an empty porch behind her. "20 of us used to work here, but now there are only four left. The others have abandoned because there is no more work".
Adama Thiem, fisherman from Soumbédioune fish market, acknowledges that "working with factories is much better than working with women who sell at the fish market. If you work with factories, you earn more, they pay better".
Fishmeal and the EU Green Deal
According to Eurostat in 2020 Senegal exported 582 tonnes of fishmeal to Europe ($1m [€880,000], mostly to Denmark, Italy, Lithuania) and Mauritania 8,000 tonnes ($10.3, mostly to Spain and Greece). Both Senegal and Mauritania export bigger quantities to Asia (China and Vietnam).
According to a study by the University of Florida, between four and five kilos of fish are needed to produce one kilo of fishmeal.
Fishmeal and fish oil are used in feeds, especially in aquaculture, in percentages varying depending on the species. According to an elaboration by Compassion in World Farming based on official Scottish government data, "54-125 forage fish (are used) to produce the fishmeal needed to feed the average 5.3kg Atlantic salmon".
The EU allocated a €6.1bn budget in the Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture fund 2021-2027, with a huge share designed for aquaculture.
"When we look at the carbon footprint of food achieved through aquaculture, it is so much lower than through traditional agriculture", says Vivian Loonela, European Commission spokesperson for the Green Deal and for maritime affairs. "We are encouraging countries to be more active when it comes to aquaculture".
Asked about the risk of "overfishing" in third countries, Loonela commented that "we are really also looking at the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems".
In late 2020 EU commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said that "as a low-carbon source of proteins and other valuable nutrients, aquaculture will help us meet the goals of the European Green Deal".
According to Andrea Doglioli, researcher at the Mediterranean Institute of Oceanography, "In typical European aquaculture farmers breed predatory fish, such as salmon in northern Europe or sea bass in the Mediterranean".
"We should think from a global point of view. Therefore breeding carnivorous fish is hardly something that could really enter into a Green Deal".
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in English in the EU Observer and The Ferret on 22 November 2021 and in Italian in Corriere Della Serra on 23 November 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Artisanal fishers in Dakar, Senegal returning with their daily catch / Credit: Francesco De Augustinis.