In the small Senegalese town of Kayar, women who dry and smoke a fish called yaboi are proud of their processing center, built in 2014. The only problem, they say, is that the once steady supply of yaboi has begun to dry up. falter, disappearing into the stranger instead. ships and intensive livestock operations that raise fish, pigs and poultry for meat.
In years past, the approximately 350 women who collectively owned the Kayar processing center would have spent most of the week preparing the yaboi for sale in Senegal, and beyond to Mali and Burkina Faso. Their work has provided both a reliable income and an affordable source of food for their families and others across West Africa.
Fish is a key component of West African diets, but even more so in Senegal. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that almost half, or 47%, of Senegal’s protein comes from fish. But the problem does not belong only to Senegal. Globally, wild fisheries like this are struggling – the share of overexploited fish populations has more than doubled since 1980, according to Our World in Data.
Here in Kayar, the women say, any fish not caught by international trawlers is transported to the local fishmeal factory. Originally owned by a Spanish company named Barna, the factory began trial production in November 2020 and moved into full production in May 2021. In July 2022 Barna sold the factory to its current owner Senegalese, Touba Marine Protein. Yet the change in ownership has not changed the friction between the factory and many locals.
Most of the fishmeal and fish oil produced by the Kayar factory, and seven similar ones in Senegal, are exported. The top three destinations in 2021 were Spain, which has one of the largest pig herds in the EU, Vietnam, Asia’s second largest pig producer, and Togo where the fishing industry breeding is expanding.
Exporting fish in such large quantities not only disrupts the marine ecosystem, but leads to further food insecurity for Senegalese. And sending fishmeal to factory farms ensures that it contributes to water, air and climate pollution.
Yaboi Fish goes to industrial farms
About 86% of all fishmeal produced in 2020 went to feed farmed fish. Pigs and poultry ate almost 9 and 1% respectively, according to the latest available data from an industry trade organization.
Fishmeal intended for industrial pig farms is often used to wean piglets from mother’s milk, making way for the next litter. Spanish animal feed body Cesfac estimates that piglets in the country eat between 15,000 and 30,000 tonnes of fishmeal each year.
In Senegal, the production of fishmeal is blamed for the decrease in the number of wild fish. “We go months without seeing any yaboi,” said Maty Ndao, who manages the fish processing center. Today, to make ends meet, women process less profitable fish such as bigeye tuna, ribbonfish and tropical bass. But fishmeal factories have also started buying these fish, they say, also risking future damage to these fish populations.
It could get worse. According to an FAO report released earlier this year, growing global demand for animal protein is driving increased demand for fish-based animal feed. For Senegal, the report says, this means an “already critical situation of fish availability and accessibility” is exacerbated by the growing number of fishmeal factories in the country – from five in 2015 to eight. in 2019 – although three were not operational at the time of reporting.
According to the report, Senegalese eat around 26 kg of fish per person, well above the global average of around 20 kg per person per year. Besides peanuts, yaboi remains one of the most affordable sources of protein and other nutrients for Senegalese. Yet data from the report suggests that competition for fish between the fish-food industry and people could lead to shortages of about 9 kg less fish per person, further exacerbating food insecurity in Senegal. .
Fishmeal factories empty plates and damage fish stocks
Estimates suggest that every tonne of fishmeal requires almost five tonnes of fresh fish to be removed from the sea. It is therefore not surprising that fishermen are worried about depleting fish populations. Speaking at a well-attended protest in August, Mor Mbengue, a Kayar fisherman who leads local opposition to fishmeal production, said the factory had “an impact on the management of fisheries resources in detriment of future generations”. Owners of the Kayar fishmeal factory, past and present, have denied creating any water or air pollution problems, saying the facility is equipped with odor treatment facilities and some water.
Both Ndao and Mbengue are involved in a legal case to shut down the fishmeal factory in Kayar. Mbengue warns that without urgent action, the economic damage to women fish processors who “feed local families in Kayar and beyond” could mean they “disappear forever”. He also denounced the air and water pollution caused by the plant as endangering the health of the people of Kayar. Owners of the Kayar fishmeal factory, past and present, have denied creating any water or air pollution problems, saying the facility is equipped with odor treatment facilities and some water.
In the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Abdoul Aziz Sy, deputy head of fisheries services at the city’s busiest landing pier, estimates that since 2019 monthly yaboi catch levels have fallen from 200 to 300,000 tonnes to less 50,000 tons. He too is questioning fishmeal production facilities, as well as fishing agreements that allow international trawlers to fish in Senegalese waters.
International trawling is an important part of the depletion of wild fish populations. The Senegalese government has been criticized for its lack of transparency in the licensing process for foreign vessels, sparking a protest in 2020 that successfully blocked the licensing of 52 mostly Chinese-owned trawlers.
Monthly catch rates are one way to measure fish populations, the other is to look at how many fish are left in the sea. Although reliable data is difficult to find in Senegal, fisheries scientist Ad Corten, who worked on EU-Mauritania fisheries agreements, said he estimates the yaboi population has lost around 10-20% of its numbers. “Very little remains of what was there at the beginning,” he says.
FAO recommends stricter regulations for the fishmeal industry
Attempts to reduce fishmeal and fish oil production are likely to be a daunting task. Prices are expected to increase by up to 8%, with forecasts suggesting the sector’s global value will reach $10.3 billion by 2027.
Interviewed in Kayar, Babacar Diallo, former director of the fishmeal factory and new owner since July, denies any suggestion that fresh fish is used to make fishmeal at the factory, either now or when Barna owned the facility. Instead, he says, the factory “only uses fish waste from the canning industry and fish factories all over Senegal.”
The fishmeal sector is committed to using less whole fish and more waste from canning or other fish processing activities. But even though the Diallo factory only uses fish waste – a claim many, including Aziz Sy, dispute – the FAO report describes Senegal’s fishmeal sector as primarily dependent on “catch round, flat sardinella” – yaboi, in other words.
One solution proposed by the FAO is stricter regulations to limit “the number, capacity and production” of the fish food industry. A June 2021 report from Greenpeace and Changing Markets put it more clearly – claiming that the European feed and fish farming sectors are “stealing” food from West Africa.
The fishmeal industry drains “overexploited resources” that are “critical to local people,” according to the report, only to grind them for industrial food animal farms.
“End consumers of products derived from the fishmeal and fish oil industry need to understand that they are part of the problem,” said one of the report’s authors, Francois Provost, who works with the Campaign. Greenpeace Oceans. Provost urges consumers to pay attention to their choices to contribute to change: “They can help reverse this broken food model for the benefit of all.”
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and Journalismfund.eu.