The factories turning West Africa’s fish into powder

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By Ian Urbina

Gunjur, a town of some 15,000 people, sits on the Atlantic coastline of southern Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent. During the day, its white-sand beaches are full of activity. Fishermen steer long, vibrantly painted wooden canoes, known as pirogues, toward the shore, where they transfer their still-fluttering catch to women waiting at the water’s edge.

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The fish are hauled off to nearby open-air markets in rusty metal wheelbarrows or in baskets balanced on heads. Small boys play soccer as tourists watch from lounge chairs. At nightfall, work ends and the beach is dotted with bonfires. There is drumming and kora lessons; men with oiled chests grapple in traditional wrestling matches.

Hike five minutes inland, and you’ll find a more tranquil setting: a wildlife reserve known as Bolong Fenyo. Established by the Gunjur community in 2008, the reserve is meant to protect 790 acres of beach, mangrove swamp, wetland, savannah, and an oblong lagoon. The lagoon, a half-mile (800m) long and a few hundred yards wide, has been a lush habitat for a remarkable variety of migratory birds as well as humped-back dolphins, epaulet fruit bats, Nile crocodiles, and callithrix monkeys.

A marvel of biodiversity, the reserve has been integral to the region’s ecological health – and, with hundreds of birders and other tourists visiting each year, to its economic health, too.

But on the morning of 22 May 2017, the Gunjur community discovered that the Bolong Fenyo lagoon had turned a cloudy crimson overnight, dotted with floating dead fish. “Everything is red,” one local reporter wrote, “and every living thing is dead.” Some residents wondered if the apocalyptic scene was an omen delivered in blood. More likely, ceriodaphnia, or water fleas, had turned the water red in response to sudden changes in pH or oxygen levels. Locals soon reported that many of the birds were no longer nesting near the lagoon.

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A few residents filled bottles with water from the lagoon and brought them to the one person in town they thought might be able to help – Ahmed Manjang. Born and raised in Gunjur, Manjang now lives in Saudi Arabia, where he works as a senior microbiologist. He happened to be home visiting his extended family, and he collected his own samples for analysis, sending them to a laboratory in Germany.

The results were alarming. The water contained double the amount of arsenic and 40 times the amount of phosphates and nitrates deemed safe. The following spring, he wrote a letter to Gambia’s environmental minister, calling the death of the lagoon “an absolute disaster”. Pollution at these levels, Manjang concluded, could only have one source: illegally dumped waste from a Chinese fish-processing plant called Golden Lead, which operates on the edge of the reserve. Gambian environmental authorities fined the company $25,000 (£18,000), an amount that Manjang described as “paltry and offensive”.

Golden Lead is one outpost of an ambitious Chinese economic and geopolitical agenda known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which the Chinese government has said is meant to build goodwill abroad, boost economic cooperation, and provide otherwise inaccessible development opportunities to poorer nations. As part of the initiative, China has become the largest foreign financier of infrastructure development in Africa, cornering the market on most of the continent’s road, pipeline, power plant and port projects.

In 2017, China cancelled $14m (£10m) in Gambian debt and invested $33m (£23.8m) to develop agriculture and fisheries, including Golden Lead and two other fish-processing plants along the 50-mile (80km) Gambian coast. The residents of Gunjur were told that Golden Lead would bring jobs, a fish market, and a newly paved, three-mile road through the heart of town.

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Golden Lead and the other factories were rapidly built to meet an exploding global demand for fishmeal – a lucrative golden powder made by pulverising and cooking fish. Exported to the United States, Europe, and Asia, fishmeal is used as a protein-rich supplement in the booming industry of fish farming, or aquaculture. West Africa is among the world’s fastest-growing producers of fishmeal: more than 50 processing plants operate along the shores of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and The Gambia. The volume of fish they consume is enormous: one plant in The Gambia alone takes in more than 7,500 tons of fish a year, mostly of a local type of shad known as bonga – a silvery fish about 10in (25cm) long.

For the area’s local fishermen, most of whom toss their nets by hand from pirogues powered by small outboard motors, the rise of aquaculture has transformed their daily working conditions: hundreds of legal and illegal foreign fishing boats, including industrial trawlers and purse seiners, criss-cross the waters off the The Gambian coast, decimating the region’s fish stocks and jeopardising local livelihoods.

After Golden Lead was fined, in 2019, it stopped releasing its toxic effluent directly into the lagoon. Instead, a long wastewater pipe was installed under a nearby public beach. Locals claimed it has been dumping waste directly into the sea. In March 2018, about a hundred and fifty local shopkeepers, youth and fishermen, wielding shovels and pickaxes, gathered on the beach to dig up the pipe and destroy it but two months later a new one was installed with the government’s approval.

Jojo Huang, the director of the plant, has said publicly that the facility follows all regulations and does not pump chemicals into the sea. The plant has benefitted the town, Golden Lead told Reuters, by helping fund a school and making donations for Ramadan celebrations.

It makes no sense!” Manjang told me, when I visited him in Gunjur at his family compound, an enclosed three-acre plot with several simple brick houses and a garden of cassava, orange and avocado trees. Behind Manjang’s thick-rimmed glasses, his gaze is gentle and direct as he speaks urgently about the perils facing The Gambia’s environment. “The Chinese are exporting our bonga fish to feed it to their tilapia fish, which they’re shipping back here to Gambia to sell to us, more expensively – but only after it’s been pumped full of hormones and antibiotics.” Adding to the absurdity, he noted, is that tilapia are herbivores that normally eat algae and other sea plants, so they have to be trained to consume fish meal.

Manjang contacted environmentalists and journalists, along with Gambian lawmakers, but was soon warned by the Gambian trade minister that pushing the issue would only jeopardise foreign investment. Bamba Banja, the head of the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources, was dismissive, telling a local reporter that the awful stench was just “the smell of money”.

Global demand for seafood has doubled since the 1960s. Our appetite for fish has outpaced what we can sustainably catch: more than 80% of the world’s wild fish stocks have collapsed or are unable to withstand more fishing. Aquaculture has emerged as an alternative – a shift, as the industry likes to say, from capture to culture.

The fastest-growing segment of global food production, the aquaculture industry is worth $160bn (£116bn) and accounts for roughly half of the world’s fish consumption. The US imports 90% of its seafood, more than half of which is farmed. The bulk of that comes from China, by far the world’s largest producer, where fish are grown in sprawling landlocked pools or in pens offshore spanning several square miles.

In India and other parts of Asia, these farms have become a crucial source of jobs, especially for women. Aquaculture makes it easier for wholesalers to ensure that their supply chains are not indirectly supporting illegal fishing, environmental crimes, or forced labour. There’s potential for environmental benefits, too: with the right protocols, aquaculture uses less fresh water and arable land than most animal agriculture. Farmed seafood produces a fraction of the carbon emissions per pound that beef does, and two-thirds of what pork does.

Still, there are also hidden costs. When millions of fish are crowded together, they generate a lot of waste. If they’re penned in shallow coastal pools, the solid waste turns into a thick slime on the seafloor, smothering all plants and animals. Nitrogen and phosphorus levels spike in surrounding waters, causing algal blooms, killing wild fish, and driving away tourists. Bred to grow faster and bigger, the farmed fish sometimes escape their enclosures and threaten indigenous species.

The biggest challenge to farming fish is feeding them. Food constitutes roughly 70% of the industry’s overhead, and so far the only commercially viable source of feed is fishmeal. Perversely, the aquaculture farms that produce some of the most popular seafood, such as carp, salmon, or European sea bass, actually consume more fish than they ship to supermarkets and restaurants. Before it gets to market, a “ranched” tuna can eat more than 15 times its weight in free-roaming fish that has been converted to fishmeal.

About a quarter of all fish caught globally at sea end up as fishmeal, produced by factories like those on the The Gambian coast. Researchers have identified various potential alternatives – including human sewage, seaweed, cassava waste, soldier-fly larvae, and single-cell proteins produced by viruses and bacteria – but none is being produced affordably at scale. So, for now, fishmeal it is.

The result is a troubling paradox: the seafood industry is ostensibly trying to slow the rate of ocean depletion, but by farming the fish we eat most, it is draining the stock of many other fish – the ones that never make it to the aisles of Western supermarkets. The Gambia exports much of its fishmeal to China and Norway, where it fuels an abundant and inexpensive supply of farmed salmon for European and American consumption. Meanwhile, the fish The Gambians themselves rely on for their survival are rapidly disappearing.

In September 2019, Gambian lawmakers gathered in the stately but neglected hall of the National Assembly for an annual meeting, where James Gomez, minister of the country’s fisheries and water resources, insisted that “Gambian fisheries are thriving”. Industrial fishing boats and plants represent the largest employer of Gambians in the country, including hundreds of deckhands, factory workers, truck drivers and industry regulators. When a lawmaker asked him about the criticisms of the three fishmeal plants, including their voracious consumption of bonga, Gomez refused to engage. “Boats are not taking more than a sustainable amount,” he said, adding that Gambian waters even have enough fish to sustain two more plants.

Under the best circumstances, estimating the health of a nation’s fish stock is a murky science. Marine researchers like to say that counting fish is like counting trees, except they’re mostly invisible – below the surface – and constantly moving. Ad Corten, a Dutch fishing biologist, told me that the task is even tougher in a place like West Africa, where countries lack the funding to properly analyse their stocks. The only reliable assessments of fish stocks in the area have focused on Mauritania, Corten said, and they show a sharp decline driven by the fishmeal industry. “The Gambia is the worst of them all,” he said, noting that the fisheries ministry barely tracks how many fish are caught by licensed ships, much less the unlicensed ones.

As fish stocks have been depleted, many wealthier nations have increased their marine policing, often by stepping up port inspections, imposing steep fines for violations, and using satellites to spot illicit activity at sea. They also have required industrial boats to carry mandatory observers and to install monitoring devices onboard. But The Gambia, like many poorer countries, has historically lacked the political will, technical skill, and financial capacity to exert its authority offshore.

Still, though it has no police boats of its own, the country is trying to better protect its waters. In August 2019, I joined a secret patrol that the fisheries agency was conducting with the help of an international ocean conservation group called Sea Shepherd, which had brought – as surreptitiously as it could – a 184ft (56m) ship called the Sam Simon into the area. It’s equipped with extra fuel capacity, to allow for long patrols, and a doubly reinforced steel hull for ramming into other boats.

In The Gambia, the nine miles (14.4km) of water closest to the shore have been reserved for local fishermen, but on any given day dozens of foreign trawlers are visible from the beach. Sea Shepherd’s mission was to find and board trespassers, or other vessels engaged in prohibited behaviours, such as shark finning or netting juvenile fish. In the past few years, the group has worked with African governments in Gabon, Liberia, Tanzania, Benin, and Namibia to conduct similar patrols. Some fisheries experts have criticised these collaborations as publicity stunts, but they have led to the arrest of more than 50 illegal fishing ships.

Barely a dozen local government officials had been informed about the Sea Shepherd mission. To avoid being spotted by fishermen, the group brought in several small speed boats at night and used them to spirit a dozen heavily armed Gambian Navy and fisheries officers out to the Sam Simon. We were joined on the patrol by two gruff private security contractors from Israel, who were training the Gambian officers in military procedures for boarding ships.

While we waited on the moonlit deck, one of the Gambian guards, dressed in a crisp blue-and-white camouflage uniform, showed me a music video on his phone by one of The Gambia’s best-known rappers, ST Brikama Boyo. He translated the lyrics of a song, called “Fuwareyaa,” which means “poverty”: “People like us don’t have meat and the Chinese have taken our sea from us in Gunjur and now we don’t have fish.”

Three hours after we embarked, the foreign ships had all but vanished, in what appeared to be a coordinated flight from the forbidden waters. Sensing that word about the operation had gotten out, the Sam Simon’s captain changed plans. Instead of focusing on the smaller unlicensed ships close to land that were mostly from neighbouring African countries, he would conduct surprise at-sea inspections of the 55 industrial ships that were licensed to be in Gambian waters. It was a bold move: marine officers would be boarding larger, well-financed ships, many of them with political connections in China and The Gambia.

Less than an hour later, we pulled alongside the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010, a 134ft (40m) electric-blue trawler streaked with rust, operated by a Chinese company called Qingdao Tangfeng Ocean Fishery, a company that supplies all three of Gambia’s fishmeal plants. A team of eight Gambian officers from the Sam Simon boarded the ship, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. One officer was so nervous that he forgot the bullhorn he was assigned to carry. Another officer’s sunglasses fell into the sea as he leaped onto the deck.

Onboard the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 were seven Chinese officers and a crew of four Gambians and thirty-five Senegalese. The Gambian marine officers soon began grilling the ship’s captain, a short man named Shenzhong Qui who wore a shirt smeared with fish guts. Below deck, 10 African crew members in yellow gloves and stained smocks stood shoulder to shoulder on either side of a conveyor belt, sorting bonga, mackerel, and whitefish into pans. Nearby, the floor-to-ceiling rows of freezers were barely cold. Roaches scurried up the walls and across the floor, where some fish had been stepped on and squashed.

I spoke to one of the workers who told me his name was Lamin Jarju and agreed to step away from the line to talk. Though no one could hear us above the deafening ca-thunk, ca-thunk of the conveyor, he lowered his voice before explaining that the ship had been fishing within the nine-mile zone until the captain received a radioed warning from nearby ships that a policing effort was under way.

When I asked Jarju why he was willing to reveal the ship’s violation, he said, “Follow me.” He led me up two levels to the roof of the wheel room, where the captain works. He showed me a large nest of crumpled newspapers, clothing and blankets, where, he said, several crew members had been sleeping for the past several weeks, ever since the captain hired more workers than the ship could accommodate. “They treat us like dogs,” Jarju said.

When I returned to the deck, an argument was escalating. A Gambian Navy lieutenant named Modou Jallow had discovered that the ship’s fishing log book was blank. All captains are required to maintain log books and keep detailed diaries that document where they go, how long they work, what gear they use and what they catch. The lieutenant had issued an arrest order for the infraction and was yelling in Chinese at Captain Qui, who was incandescent with rage. “No one keeps that!” he shouted.

He was not wrong. Paperwork violations are common, especially on fishing boats working along the coast of West Africa, where countries don’t always provide clear guidance about their rules.

But the lack of proper logs makes it almost impossible to determine how quickly The Gambia’s waters are being depleted. Scientists rely on biological surveys, scientific modelling and mandatory reports from fish dealers on shore to assess fish stocks. And they use log books to determine fishing locations, depths, dates, gear descriptions, and “fishing effort” – how long nets or lines are in the water relative to the quantity of fish caught.

Jallow ordered the fishing captain to steer his ship back to port, and the argument moved from the upper deck down to the engine room, where the captain claimed he needed a few hours to fix a pipe – enough time, the Sam Simon crew suspected, for the captain to contact his bosses in China and ask them to call in a favour with high-level Gambian officials. Jallow, sensing a stalling tactic, smacked the captain in the face. “You will make the fix in an hour!” Jallow shouted, grabbing the captain by the throat. “And I will watch you do it.” Twenty minutes later, the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 was en route to shore.

Over the next several weeks, the Sam Simon inspected 14 foreign ships, most of them Chinese and licensed to fish in Gambian waters, and arrested 13 of them. Under arrest, ships are typically detained in port for several weeks and fined anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 (£3,627 to £36,270). All but one vessel was charged with lacking a proper fishing log book, and many were also fined for improper living conditions and for violating a law that stipulates Gambians must comprise 20% of shipping crews on industrial vessels in national waters.

On one Chinese-owned vessel, there weren’t enough boots for the deckhands, and one Senegalese worker was pricked by a catfish whisker while wearing flip flops. His swollen foot, oozing from the puncture wound, looked like a rotting aubergine. On another ship, eight workers slept in a space meant for two, a four-foot-tall steel-sided compartment directly above the engine room and dangerously hot. When high waves crashed onboard, the water flooded the makeshift cabin, where, the workers said, an electrical power strip had twice almost electrocuted them.

Back in Banjul, one rainy afternoon I sought out Mustapha Manneh, a 28-year old local Gambian journalist and environmental advocate, who had returned to The Gambia in March 2017 from exile in Cyprus. We met in the white-tiled lobby of the Laico Atlantic hotel, decorated with fake potted plants and thick yellow drapes. Pachelbel’s Canon played in an endless loop in the background, accompanied by the plinking of water dripping from the ceiling into half a dozen buckets. Manneh had had to move to Cyprus after his father and brother had been arrested for political activism against Yahya Jammeh, a brutal autocrat who was eventually forced from power in 2017. Manneh, who told me that he hoped to become president one day, offered to take me to the Golden Lead factory.

The next day, Manneh returned in a Toyota Corolla he had hired for the difficult drive. Most of the road from the hotel to Golden Lead was dirt, which recent rains had turned into a treacherous slalom course of deep and almost impassable craters. The trip was about 30 miles (48km), and took nearly two hours. Over the din of a missing muffler, he prepared me for the visit. “Cameras away,” he cautioned. “No saying anything critical about fishmeal.”

We finally pulled up at the entrance of the plant, 500 yards from the beach, behind a 10ft (3m) wall of white corrugated metal. An acrid stench, like burning orange peels and rotting meat, assaulted us as soon as we got out of the car. Between the factory and the beach was a muddy patch of land, studded with palm trees and strewn with litter, where fishermen were repairing their boats in thatched-roof huts. The day’s catch lay on a set of folding tables, where women were cleaning, smoking and drying it for sale. One of the women wore a hijab dripping wet from the surf. When I asked her about the catch, she shot me a dour look and tipped her basket toward me. It was barely half-full. “We can’t compete,” she said. Pointing at the factory, she added, “It all goes there.”

The Golden Lead plant consists of several football-field-size concrete buildings, and sixteen silos, where dried fish meal and chemicals are stored. Fishmeal is relatively simple to make, and the process is highly mechanised, which means that plants the size of Golden Lead need only about a dozen men on the floor at any given time. Video footage clandestinely taken by a fishmeal worker inside Golden Lead reveals the plant is cavernous, dusty, hot, and dark. Sweating profusely, several men shovel shiny heaps of bonga into a steel funnel. A conveyor belt carries the fish into a vat, where a giant churning screw grinds it into a gooey paste, and then into a long cylindrical oven, where oil is extracted from the goo. The remaining substance is pulverised into a fine powder and dumped onto the floor in the middle of the warehouse, where it accumulates into a 10ft-tall golden mound.

After the powder cools, workers shovel it into 50kg (110lb) plastic sacks stacked floor to ceiling. A shipping container holds 400 bags, and the men fill roughly 20 to 40 containers a day.

Near the entrance of Golden Lead, a dozen or so young men hustled from shore to plant with baskets on their heads, brimming with bonga. Nearby, standing under several gangly palm trees, a 42-year-old fisherman named Ebrima Jallow explained that the women pay more for a single basket, but Golden Lead buys in bulk and often pays for 20 baskets in advance – in cash. “The women can’t do that,” he said.

A few hundred yards away, Dawda Jack Jabang, the 57-year-old owner of the Treehouse Lodge, a deserted beachfront hotel and restaurant, stood in a side courtyard staring at the breaking waves. “I spent two good years working on this place,” he told me. “And overnight Golden Lead destroyed my life.” Hotel bookings have plummeted, and the plant’s odour at times is so noxious that patrons leave his restaurant before finishing their meal.

Golden Lead has hurt more than helped the local economy, Jabang said. But what about all of those young men hauling their baskets of fish to the factory? Jabang waved the question away dismissively: “This is not the employment we want. They’re turning us into donkeys and monkeys.” [Note: The writer contacted Golden Lead for comment, but none was forthcoming]

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the tenuousness of this employment landscape, as well as its corruption. In May, many of the migrant workers on fishing crews returned home to celebrate Eid just as borders were closing down. With workers unable to return to The Gambia and new lockdown measures in place, Golden Lead and other plants suspended operation.

Or they were supposed to. Manneh obtained secret recordings in which Bamba Banja, of the Ministry of Fisheries, discussed bribes in exchange for allowing factories to operate during the lockdown. In October, Banja took a leave of absence after a police investigation found that, between 2018 and 2020, he had accepted $10,000 (£7,212) in bribes from Chinese fisherman and companies, including Golden Lead.

On the day that I visited Golden Lead, I made my way down to the sprawling beach. I found Golden Lead’s new wastewater pipe, which was about a foot (30cm) in diameter, already rusted, corroded and only slightly visible above the mounds of sand. A Chinese flag planted earlier was gone. Kneeling down, I felt liquid flowing through it. Within minutes, a Gambian guard appeared and ordered me to leave the area.

The next day I headed to the country’s only international airport, located an hour away from the capital, Banjul, to catch my flight home. My luggage was light now that I’d thrown away the putrid-smelling clothes from my trip to the fishmeal plant. At one point during the drive, as we negotiated pothole after pothole, my taxi driver vented his frustration. “This,” he said, gesturing ahead of us, “is the road the fishmeal plant promised to pave.”

At the airport, I discovered my flight had been delayed by a flock of buzzards and gulls blocking the only runway. Several years earlier, the Gambian government had built a landfill close by, and scavenger birds descended in droves. While I waited among a dozen German and Australian tourists, I called Mustapha Manneh. I reached him at home, in the town of Kartong, seven miles from Gunjur.

Manneh told me he was standing in his front yard, looking out on a litter-strewn highway that connects the JXYG factory, a Chinese fish-meal plant, to The Gambia’s largest port, in Banjul. In the few minutes we had been talking, he said, he had watched 10 tractor-trailer trucks rattle by, kicking up thick clouds of dust as they went, each hauling a 40ft-long (12m) shipping container full of fishmeal. From Banjul, those containers would depart for Asia, Europe, and the United States.

“Every day,” Manneh said, “it’s more.”

Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights issues at sea. This article was first published on The BBC

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