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Consider this: almost a fifth of the annual amount of fish caught in the wild is minced and pressed into fishmeal and fish oil, the majority of which is used in fish farming for carnivorous species such as salmon and prawns.
This is according to a recent report by Dutch-based foundation Changing Markets, which has unveiled “highly unsustainable” practices in the supply chains of many farmed-fish products found in European supermarkets – including a number that boast sustainability certifications. Billed as the first report to map the full supply chains of fishmeal and fish oil from fisheries to forks, it was researched through investigations in India, Vietnam and Gambia last year.
According to the report, it takes up to five kilograms of fish to produce one kilogram of meal, which runs the risk of depleting the ocean’s fish stocks just to produce the feed for fish farming.
“What surprised me was the scale of the industry,” says Alfonso Daniels, a Spanish researcher and journalist who was the report’s lead investigator for Gambia. While the country has only been involved in the fishmeal and fish oil industry since 2016, a full 40 percent of the country’s total annual catch is now being bought and used by just one of its fishmeal plants.
In a country with a GDP per capita of only USD 1,700 in 2018, and where the majority of people depend on fish as a staple food – and with high childhood malnourishment rates – the fact that so much of the fish catch is going to feed other fish, to then feed other people in wealthier countries, is “just shocking,” said Daniels.
What is a waste product?
In a statement responding to the report, the industry’s trade body the Marine Ingredients Organization (IFFO) emphasized its use of by-products from seafood processing (which currently makes up a third of the raw material for fishmeal and fish oil) and fish that people don’t want to eat. “It is a good way to use material that would otherwise not be consumed,” the statement read.
But Daniels said that in the Gambian context, this is clearly not the case.
“I didn’t see any byproducts,” he says of his observations of the three operational fishmeal and fishoil plants in the country. “The boats arrive at shore – and there’s hundreds of them – and people walk across the beach with these crates on their heads to the fishmeal plants where it’s processed. And all that was bonga fish [Ethmalosa fimbriata], which is the local staple. It could perfectly well be used for human consumption.”
As less fish is available to buy locally, this pushes the prices up, becoming unaffordable for many families. “At the markets, the fish saleswomen were telling us that the prices are now two or three times what they were a couple of years ago,” said Daniels.
In two fishmeal-producing regions in India – the Mangalore-Karwar belt on the country’s west coast, and Andhra Pradesh in the south-east – fisherpeople told investigators a similar story. They said that the companies “take everything,” and that a number of previously-abundant fish stocks have collapsed since the industries’ establishment. Meanwhile, in Vietnam’s three fishmeal-production hub ports, the researchers found that catches destined for fishmeal are not being reported to authorities, so significant overfishing is going on unchecked, and stocks are declining rapidly as a result.
Sniffing out the industry
The report also found that air and water pollution from the plants is affecting people’s health and other local industries, such as tourism. In Sanyang Beach, Gambia, the fishmeal plant has installed a wastewater pipe that flows out into the sea, right next to the hotels and lodges, polluting the air and water and emitting a strong smell. The beach has long been famous for ecotourism.
“So you have the fishmeal plants, which create very few jobs, essentially destroying the industry that was developing successfully there and providing lots of local employment,” says Daniels. “You get a lot of people migrating to the coast because they’re losing their crops due to climate change. And then if there’s no fish, what are they going to do?” Oftentimes, he says, they end up migrating to Europe or elsewhere where they can find a better livelihood.
In India, locals who spoke out on these issues reported experiencing intimidation from plant owners, while in Vietnam, community members said their complaints about the terrible smells from the plants were consistently ignored by authorities.
Following the fishmeal supply chain all the way to European supermarkets, the researchers found that a lot of farmed-fish products advertised as ‘certified-sustainable’ used meal from the plants where they had found practices to be problematic.
Even if the certification systems get straightened out in future, Daniels is dubious that large-scale fishmeal and fish oil production can ever be sustainable. “You have stocks that are already under pressure because of overfishing, illegal fishing and climate change, and you’re adding another layer of pressure,” he said.