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The disappearing Senegalese sardines

Far out. Fishers haul in their catch some 60 kilometres off the coast of Saint Louis, Senegal. They report travelling further, for longer, to catch ever-dwindling amounts of sardinella.

Sunday is a working day like any other in Thiaroye-sur-Mer, a fishing village long since swallowed up by the urban sprawl of Dakar. The tarmac road down to the seafront in the downtown suburb of Senegal’s capital quickly gives way to sand; motorized traffic morphs into horse-drawn carts which carry women with buckets stacked high with fish. Along the side of the road dust rises between flocks of brown sparrows, piles of rubbish and watchful stray cats.

Down on the quay, racks of salted and drying sea creatures – lumps of crustaceans and rubbery squid, snappers and rays – stand against the backdrop of a flat, deep blue Atlantic Ocean. Half a hammerhead shark, sliced head to tail, lies on the ground; three one-metre-long captain fish, faces frozen into a final gasp, come past on a wheelbarrow.

Hundreds of women make their living here. At the entrance, someone is scaling a charred fish, working through a small pile of sardinella, or yaboy in local language Wolof. She’s been here since 7.30am and seems dejected. ‘The water is not bringing much fish. Everything is expensive,’ she says.

Diaba Diop, who heads up a women’s association for fish processors (or transformatrices as they are known here) explains that fishers are selling their catch elsewhere. ‘Fishmeal factories are offering a good price for yaboy – three times what we can pay.’

Abby Batoujoy learned the trade from her mother-in-law. For 40 years, she made a good living, enough to feed and educate her six children. ‘It was good in the past,’ she says, ‘but it doesn’t work any more, ça ne va plus.’ These days you might go for a week without seeing fish. ‘We sit and wait.’

‘If there’s no fish, we lose,’ says Diaba. ‘And our children won’t eat.’

In the last five years, fishmeal factories have multiplied along the coast of West Africa. They are in direct competition with the women in Thiaroye-sur-Mer for yaboy, a small oily pelagic fish in the sardine family. Senegal had five factories in 2015 and eight in operation by 2019. Across the border in Mauritania there are 35 more. The yaboy – already a dwindling resource – are being pulverized into fish oil and fishmeal, along with other small pelagic species like bonga and horse mackerel, for a powerful global feed industry, valued at $6.9 billion in 2019. Fishmeal factories are not new (Dakar has had one since the 1970s) but the demand for fishmeal and fish oil has rocketed in recent years, as an essential ingredient for farmed fish and animals, destined for export markets in China and Europe. Greenpeace estimates that over half a million tonnes of small pelagic West African fish went this way in 2019 – roughly equal to Senegal’s entire annual catch.

If there’s no fish, we lose. And our children won’t eat

Fish have outsized importance in Senegal, a nation of 16 million where as many as 1 in 6 people work in or around the industry. Fish is valued, culturally embedded and popular – star of the national rice dish thiebodienne, the source of 70 per cent of protein, along with essential micronutrients: iron, calcium and vitamin A. The flavoursome yaboy, in particular, are known as the fish of the poor. They are delicious. As one proverb has it, it’s lucky they have so many bones, as it stops rich people from bothering with them. But since this local staple became a prized global commodity, these fish are priced out of reach, in a country where more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line. There’s a new saying now, drawn from Senegal’s other national obsession: football. ‘Yaboy has moved off the bench into the starting eleven.’

One of the new fish factories is located in Kayar on the exposed coastline north of Dakar – home to some of the best artisanal fishers in Senegal, which has a powerful fleet of some 60,000 wooden boats or pirogues. Painted in swirling greens, reds and yellows, they are named for Sufi mystics and nearly all equipped with outboard motors.

Race to the bottom

A fishmonger sells her wares on Yoff beach, Dakar. The globalized trade in fishmeal and fish oil poses an existential threat to tens of thousands of women who buy, sell and cure fish for a living.

In Kayar the community is well organized and has put in measures to manage sardinella stocks, implementing the use of non-destructive nets. But this is starting to fall by the wayside as the factories’ insatiable appetite spurs over-fishing of yaboy, which are already listed as overexploited by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). ‘How can you talk about managing resources when you bring in a factory that encourages over-fishing – of the same fish?’ asks fisherman and activist Mor Mbengue, with barely contained anger.

Mor heads up a coalition that has opposed the factory since it opened in 2019. ‘We had to support our wives,’ to help defend their jobs, he says against the background roar of Atlantic white noise, punctuated by the steady knocking of hammers on boats. Fishing is a tightly interwoven family business, divided along strictly gendered lines. Fathers and sons haul in the fish, women preserve it and sell it on, but may also own boats and put forward the capital to fund expeditions. Factories are supposed to use waste – unused off-cuts and trimmings – and in fact are tied to this under Senegalese law. But there isn’t enough waste and, not for the first time, good policies are ignored when there’s money to be made.

The Barna fishmeal factory at Kayar can process between 100-300 tonnes of fish per day. HAZEL HEALY/NEW INTERNATIONALIST

It’s well-known that suppliers for the factories buy up fresh, whole fish from landing sites and markets along the length of the coastline.1In the short-term fishers benefit – though exploitative contracts have also been documented – but ‘what they earn short-term does not measure against the long-term impact on the resource,’ says Mor, who works as the co-ordinator of the local council of artisanal fishers. (The anthropologist Aliou Sall has called this rush on resources a form of ‘collective suicide’.) Instead of the 50-per-cent reduction required to preserve the stock, catches of small pelagic species have more than doubled off northwest Africa over the past 25 years. On top of this, people here say the factory – which can process between 100 and 300 tonnes of yaboy per day – is breaking the law and buying juvenile fish.

The power dynamics of trade mean that it’s now more profitable for boats to sell Senegalese yaboy, or Peruvian anchoveta, as raw material to factories for export, than to sell to people to eat directly

Stocks were already low. Mor says they now see a third of what they used to get, despite spending twice as long at sea and covering ever-greater distances. He calls up stats on his phone: year on year, diesel use has gone up by 20 per cent, landings of pelagic fish (which make up 80 per cent of artisanal fishers’ catches) are eight tonnes down.

The factories are following on from high levels of industrial fishing – both illegal and licensed. In 2011, Russian boats ‘massacred the resource’, Mor says, trawling for pelagic fish, although this is also illegal under Senegalese law. After a public outcry, the only foreign boats licensed now are EU tuna fleets, but a loophole allows joint ventures, effectively allowing foreign interests – particularly Chinese – to exploit and export behind a Senegalese front. Opaque licensing practices mean some are granted in secret, access slips in via the small print of ‘co-operation’ agreements and the cost to the state of regulating foreign boats licensed to fish in the waters of surrounding countries is prohibitive. While government statistics say artisanal fishers account for 80 per cent of catches, data from The Sea Around Us, a project which combines official data with estimates of unreported fishing, puts it closer to 50/50. ‘So, if industrial fishing stopped, the pressure on stocks would halve overnight,’ explains fisheries expert Christina Hicks.

Mor will continue to mobilize opposition, he says, despite what he describes as a dirty tricks campaign against him by the owner of the factory, which is backed by Spanish investors. He insists it is illegal; he has seen no reliable impact assessment. Set up in the middle of a residential area, the bad smell was overwhelming; it triggered respiratory problems like asthma attacks among the young and the old, and rendered the surrounding farmers’ fields unusable. (The factory did not respond to requests to comment.) ‘I am a fighter,’ Mor says. But he has taken the precaution of buying land nearby, as back-up for a time when fish will no longer pay the bills. He wants his young sons to earn their living differently.

Boubaker Fall, a fish wholesaler, is deeply worried. ‘Our fishers have become sellers,’ he tells me later that day at Dakar’s busy fish market, where rows of women sit around mincers, grinding yaboy into paste. ‘They buy fish from the industrial boats to sell on.’ With 300,000 young people entering the job market in Senegal every year, the youth are seeking opportunities elsewhere. ‘No-one has hope. Hundreds of young men have gone to Europe, a lot of them are dead in the sea. Someone lost their son in Mauritania yesterday,’ he says.

Aquaculture’s Achilles’ heel

Demand is booming for farmed fish like salmon, which is presented as 'sustainable'. Yet wild, pelagic fish - like these pictured on Yoff beach, Dakar, are a key ingredient for farmed fish - and stocks are at risk of collapsing.

A number of container vessels ply routes between West Africa, ports in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and others in Europe, delivering fishmeal and fish oil. Container ships of ground-up fishmeal powders head for the Spanish port of Algeciras, before heading off to China. The clear brown-yellow oil is shipped on Norwegian chemical tankers in stainless-steel tanks.

Global demand for fishmeal and oil has shot up in recent years. The majority goes to fish farming, with the rest being turned into feed for pigs and chicken. Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food sector in the world – in the last 40 years, it’s jumped from providing just 5 per cent to 50 per cent of the world’s fish.

Farmed fish is presented as a healthy, climate-friendly protein alternative to meat, a way to protect ocean stocks and ‘solve world hunger’. Most consumers are unaware that wild pelagic fish are a key ingredient for carnivorous farmed fish – like sea bass and salmon – and now account for 30 per cent of global catch.

Isata needs iron zinc and vitamin A, nutrients that are highly concentrated in fish, in her first 1,000 days of life

Atlantic salmon is the most-bought fish in Britain and is popular throughout Europe, the US and Japan. To reproduce salmon’s natural food – and boost its highly marketed levels of Omega 3 – farmers rely on fatty acids and nutrients that are only found in oily ‘forage’ fish (like sprats and herring, anchoveta, or sardinella). Feed for salmon and trout uses 60 per cent of all fish oil – and it's that which is running short.

The power dynamics of trade mean that it’s now more profitable for boats to sell Senegalese sardinella, or Peruvian anchoveta, as raw material to factories for export, than to people to eat directly.

‘It’s not an uncommon story,’ says Jessica Gephart, a US environmental scientist whose work tracks the impact of seafood trade. ‘There are a couple of ways that globalization affects these local markets. It creates price competition and drives up prices.’

Gephart helps me to navigate the UN Comtrade database. It shows a jagged upward trajectory of fish-oil exports from Senegal, which reached 6,700 tonnes in 2019, headed for Chile, Spain, Demark and France over the last few years. In Denmark, farmers feed Senegalese fishmeal to weaning piglets. Denmark also exports fish oil to Norway, Europe’s primary salmon producer (79,000 tonnes in 2019).

West Africa makes up just seven per cent of the fishmeal and fish-oil market, and the biggest share comes from Mauritania. This makes Senegal’s products hard to trace directly in an interconnected and opaque global supply chain with multiple stages. Processor companies often combine and sell on products sourced from different countries; data is fragmented; imports don’t match exports.

In the past decade, the production of fishmeal and fish oil in West Africa has grown ten-fold. ‘The broad picture is that West African fishmeal and fish oil is high quality and companies are looking to open up new sources of supply,’ says Natasha Hurley from the Changing Markets Foundation.

Four of the world’s largest aquafeed companies – Cargill/EWOS, Skretting, Mowi and BioMar – had combined sales of $3.3 billion in 2017. A recent report by Changing Markets and Greenpeace Africa showed that these four companies have all been connected to the West African fish ingredients trade in recent years. In turn, fish producers that bought aquafeed from the big four went on to sell their seafood products to retailers Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Lidl and Aldi. (Sainsbury’s and M&S have communicated that no West African fishmeal or oil was used in their seafood.)

The industry knows finite wild fish pose a problem. It has successfully brought down the ratio of fishmeal and fish oil in salmon feed to between 25-30 per cent. But despite increased efficiency, total demand has increased. Research shows that 90 per cent of fishmeal and oil uses food-grade fish, not waste. As alternatives, the industry has tried seaweed, insects – like black soldier fly larvae or termites – cassava waste and by-product proteins from chicken farming (blood, bone and feathers).

Until now, they have found no cost-effective replacement for the superfood that is small, oily fish. Senegal has the same problem. But for its children.

The nutrient gap

Pre-school students sit down for a lunch of sardinella paste and rice at a nursery in Saint Louis, northern Senegal. Foreign demand for fishmeal makes it harder for children to get enough iron and calcium in a country where 70% of children are anaemic.

A cross-departmental government unit called the Nutrition Task Force co-ordinates services throughout Senegal, and collects an array of data.

They show that Senegalese children are lacking in iron and calcium, which are being diverted to the fishmeal trade. Around 70 per cent of children under five are anaemic and over 90 per cent are deficient in calcium. Stunting – impaired growth from long-term undernourishment that’s linked to cognitive impairment – affects around 18 per cent of under-fives.

Near the hushed desert town of Linguere, on the edge of the Ferlo desert, I join a nurse called Emile Seck on his rounds. Tall, with glasses and a natty hat, he is charged with collecting nutrition statistics, which he relays by tablet to a central government database.

Hunger is highest in rural areas in Senegal and the village of Barkedy’s health centre, our second stop, might have 15 acute or severely malnourished children enrolled in its outpatient programme at any one time.

The maternity clinic is timed to coincide with market day and 25 finely dressed pregnant women are packed on to benches, many with toddlers in arms, who wail as they are weighed in a black bucket and their height measured in a large wooden vice. Emile records and checks the measurements against the World Health Organization chart.

Soon a little girl in a blue dress with pink sandals is ushered into a side room with her parents. The circumference of her upper arm is measured and comes up red: she’s severely malnourished. Emile talks about the importance of dried fish, beans and hygiene while a take-home pack is made up of fortified flour, nutritional supplement Plumpy'Sup and a hand-washing bucket.

The girl, Isata, is two years old. Her father is a herder with just 10 goats; life is a struggle, they say. Asked what meals they eat, her mother says: rice and fish – when she can get it. Not meat and milk, which they sell. Isata needs these nutrients – iron, zinc and vitamin A, which are contained in yaboy in highly concentrated form – in her first 1,000 days of life when her brain is growing the most rapidly. So does her mother, who is pregnant.

But while dried yaboy is on sale here, the cost is becoming prohibitive. In the market, between piles of bright mattresses, second-hand clothes and sacks of hibiscus flowers, Fulani herders in vivid blue and purple robes are squatting under shelters in the broiling 43-degree-Celsius heat, within sight of their animals: horses, donkeys, goats and white cattle. Among them sits a trader by a basket of crispy orange kethiahk (pronounced ‘ketcha’), made of grilled and cured yaboy. She reports that prices have gone up by 15-20 per cent this past year. At 700 CFA francs per kilo (around 1 US dollar) it’s still not affordable for many in this district. And it will go up to CFA 1,000 during the rainy season.

Senegal is viewed as a relative success story in the fight for nutrition but its gains are fragile. ‘We are not in the emergency situation of Mali or Burkina Faso, but we need to pay attention,’ explains Mamadou Diop, Action Against Hunger’s regional head. He’s watched as the numbers of people in crisis in West Africa and the Sahel has doubled in just one year, to reach 24.5 million in 2020.

Covid-19 has pushed more people into poverty in Senegal. Last year saw a significant rise in the numbers of people defined as ‘crisis-level hunger or worse’ to 800,000, or 5 per cent of the population – with hardship also driven by flooding and drought. ‘Livelihoods are in danger,’ says Mamadou. ‘Fisheries are a case in point.’

The women who feed Africa

'Nothing is wasted': a woman sorts through scraps of smoked pelagic fish at Bargny beach, near Dakar. Around 1,000 fish processors work on this site, from where they export fish directly on the back of lorries to Mali, Burkina Faso and beyond.

In a hotel conference room in the resort town of Saly, Diaba Diop clears her throat. She is speaking at a meeting for ‘non-state fishery actors’ organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-member regional group with a mandate of promoting economic integration.

Covid-19 has killed off package tourism, leaving the pristine white sand and turquoise waters to the Senegalese. While Diaba puts her case, football matches spring up outside, one after another, till the beach is packed with games of all sizes.

‘If the fish factories continue, the work of the transformatrices will disappear,’ she is saying. ‘We cannot take fishmeal when the people need it. How can you kill fish to feed other fish?’ Tough and sanguine, she is unable to keep the incredulity out of her voice at this last detail, as she quotes the FAO statistic: it takes 4.5 kilograms of fresh fish to make 1 kilogram of fishmeal (for fish oil it takes 20 kilograms).

Her audience is sympathetic. The Gambian representative has three fish factories to contend with while the government of Sierra Leone has just announced the construction of its first, on the edge of a protected marine reserve.

In any case, the fate of Senegal’s resources affects the whole region. Some 50 kilometres north of here in Bargny, at one of the country’s largest fish processing sites, around 1,000 women salt, smoke and dry yaboy for export directly on the back of lorries to countries ‘without a sea’: Mali, Burkina Faso and beyond. These are the trade routes that support food security within the African continent. As the anthropologist Aliou Sall puts it to me later: ‘These are the women that feed Africa.’

Diaba is trying to professionalize her sector. She wants ID cards and recognized status – because how can you begin to protect jobs that are off the official record? I saw one estimate of 38,000 fish processors (from 2008) but it seems no-one has ever really counted. In comparison the fishmeal factories (which have counted) are responsible for generating just 129 permanent jobs, and 264 temporary posts.1

Her call is for more government investment in the transformatrices: cold stores, infrastructure and running water. And she wants a new generation to bring their knowledge. ‘I say to the young: come and apply what you have learned, innovate, bring new technology, evolve it differently to your parents. Make it better.’

Gaoussou Guèye, president of WANSAFA (‘regional platform non-state actors of fisheries and aquaculture in West Africa’), calls for transparency. ‘Why does the government take these bad decisions?’ he challenges. ‘The farmed fish are eaten by the rich, not the poor. If we carry on like this, the poor will have nothing to eat.’

Fishers are squeezed on all side. He lists the threats: oil and gas off the north coast, tourism and industry projects along the coastline. Then he lists the laws which are being ignored: Conventions of the International Labour Organization, FAO’s voluntary guidelines on Small Scale Fisheries, of which Senegal is a signatory.

Blue justice

Whose fish? The rising price of dried fish puts nutritious food out of reach for Isata, a severely malnourished two-year-old girl, pictured with her parents who are herders in the rural district of Linguère.

The fishing sector has some clout, but not enough. The government has said it will not allow any new factories to be built while the situation is ‘reviewed’. But as one official, who asked not to be named, says: ‘Nutrition never wins out when revenue is at stake – we are a poor country.’

But it’s this deeper economic orthodoxy that must be challenged. The estimated $7 million earned by the government in 2018 from fishmeal and fish oil could not begin to replace the lost livelihoods or the long-term cost to food security, children’s health and the environment.

Some 260 million people work in fisheries either through fishing or processing and trade and 97 per cent of these are in the Global South. ‘The “Blue Economy” idea – that countries need to make money from the oceans to manage them better – is so dangerous,’ says Christina Hicks. ‘Small-scale fisheries sustain vast “welfare base” benefits – nutritious diets, jobs – in Senegal which far outweigh pure economic benefits. The Blue Economy trades these livelihoods in for the promise of future wealth. The same thing is happening all over the world.’

The primary purpose of food production should be to feed people. But in a market economy whoever has the most market power decides the price. This story shows that hunger is fundamentally a problem of distribution and equity.

‘It’s the abstract logic of capital that prevails,’ says development economist Ndongo Samba Sylla by Zoom from Dakar. ‘It’s like colonialism without a colonizer.

‘If we want more sustainable and prosperous societies we have to be self-reliant. That doesn’t mean autochthony: it means renegotiating relationships in a way that benefits the people.’

This model has to be invented, step by step. ‘We need new visions of development and ecology. We need to build strong coalitions to have influence over our politics. This is possible. It depends on good leadership and good context – because a crisis is an opportunity for radical changes.’

In the meantime: here are three things that might help.

(1) On the demand side, legislate to shrink the size of the farmed salmon industry, until a viable alternative to wild-fish ingredients is found. Or shift with immediate effect to farming non-carnivorous species.

(2) Restructure the terms of trade. After 20 years of deadlock, the WTO is in the process of closing negotiations to end unsustainable rich-world fishing subsidies – this is a positive step. Tariffs can tilt the pricing in favour of the domestic market. Regulate to protect this supply of cheap nutritious food – before it’s too late.

(3) Help Senegal to protect its fisheries by cancelling its crippling foreign debt, which is equal to over 60 per cent of its Gross National Income. (for more ideas, see 10 steps to end world hunger)

The race is not over yet. ‘There are still hundreds of tonnes of fish being landed at the Senegalese landing sites,’ points out Béatrice Gorez from the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements. ‘It’s a fragile resource, there are signs of overexploitation. But it doesn’t mean it will disappear tomorrow – for good.’

In Yoff, a landing site for fishers in Dakar, it is hard to imagine a future without sardinella. Boys are fishing with lines between the rocks, silhouetted against a white Atlantic sky. One lies on his front, watching the boats come and go, carrying fuel to larger boats or heading straight out to sea, clearing the waves.

Further up the beach, a pirogue has been commandeered for hairdressing and a man is sat sewing up another’s dreads. One boat is being repainted. Another has been freshened up with a painted-on 2021. (A government ban on new boats is not being observed.) Others are more weathered and look to be biodegrading into the sand.

By the shore, a group of girls passes, heads piled high with buckets of salt water. Two toddlers are bringing up the rear, a boy and a girl, holding hands. In her free hand, the girl is swinging two tiny fish by the tail.

A taciturn 12-year-old boy is waiting for his father’s boat to come in. He has been out on trips with him – at night too. What does he want to be when he grows up? A fisherman.


Listen out for the two-part radio documentary Tale of a Tiny Fish, which will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on 2 and 9 November 2021.

The Food Justice files are funded by the European Journalism Centre through its European Development Journalism Grants programme, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

1 ‘Socio-economic and biological impacts of the fish-based feed industry for sub-Saharan Africa’, FAO, University of Greenwich & Worldfish, forthcoming. 

Action and INFO
Stolen fish (Greenpeace Africa)
Farmed fish campaign (Feedback Global)
Fishing the Feed (Changing Markets Foundation)
Food Systems for People: Coalition mobilizing around the UN food summit
World Forum of Fisher Peoples Global: Fishworkers movement
Via Campesina: Global peasants’ social movement
Food Tank: US-based food systems thinktank
Hunger for Justice: Weekly broadcast profiling food movements
Table Debates: Even-handed topical food policy debates
Food, Jennifer Clapp, Polity Press, 2020
How to feed the world without destroying it, Eric Holt-Giménez, Polity, 2019

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