In the small Senegalese town of Kayar the women who dry and smoke a fish called yaboi are proud of their processing center, built in 2014. The only problem, they say, is the once regular yaboi supply has begun to falter, vanishing instead into foreign ships and intensive animal farming operations that raise fish, pigs and poultry for meat.
In years past, the 350 or so women who collectively own the Kayar processing center would have spent most of the week preparing yaboi for sale around Senegal, and beyond to Mali and Burkina Faso. Their work provided both a reliable income and an affordable food source for their families and others throughout West Africa.
Fish are a key part of West African diets, but even more so in Senegal. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that almost half, or 47 percent, of Senegal’s protein comes from fish. But the catch does not belong to Senegal alone. Globally, wild fisheries like this one are in trouble — 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 snagged by international trawlers is carted to the local fishmeal factory. Originally owned by a Spanish company named Barna, the factory began test production in November 2020 and moved to full production in May 2021. In July 2022, Barna sold the factory to its current Senegalese owner, Touba Protéine Marine. Yet the change in ownership hasn’t changed the friction between the factory and many locals.
Most of the fishmeal and fish oil produced by the Kayar factory, and seven others like it in Senegal, is exported. The top three destinations in 2021 were Spain, which has one of the largest EU pig herds, Vietnam, the second largest Asian pig producer, and Togo where the farmed fish sector is expanding.
Exporting fish in these large quantities not only disturbs the marine ecosystem, it leads to further food insecurity for the Senegalese. And sending fishmeal to industrial livestock farms all but ensures it contributes to water, air and climate pollution.
Yaboi Fish Going to Industrial Farming Operations
About 86 percent of all fishmeal produced in 2020 went to feed farmed fish. Pigs and poultry ate almost 9 and 1 percent respectively, according to the latest available data from an industry trade organization.
Fishmeal that goes to industrial pork farms is often used to wean piglets from mother’s milk, making way for the next litter. The Spanish feed body Cesfac estimates the country’s piglets eat between 15,000 and 30,000 tonnes of fishmeal each year.
Back in Senegal, fishmeal production is blamed for dwindling numbers of wild fish. “We go months without seeing yaboi,” said Maty Ndao, who manages the fish processing center. These days, to make ends meet, the women process less profitable fish such as bigeye grunt, ribbonfish and tropical seabass. But fishmeal factories have started buying up these fish too, they say, risking future damage to those fish populations as well.
It could get worse. According to an FAO report released earlier this year, rising global demand for animal protein is driving increased demand for fish-based animal feeds. For Senegal, the report said, that means an “already critical situation of fish availability and affordability” is being exacerbated by the rising number of fishmeal factories in the country — up from five in 2015 to eight in 2019 — although three were not operational at the time of the report.
The Senegalese, the report said, eat an estimated 26 kg of fish per person, well above the global average of around 20 kg per person, per year. Apart from groundnuts — yaboi remains one of the most affordable sources of protein and other nutrients for Senegalese. Yet data from the report suggests that the competition for fish between the fish-based feed industry and people could mean shortages of about 9 kg less fish per person, making food insecurity in Senegal even worse.
Fishmeal Factories Empty Plates and Damage Fish Stocks
Estimates suggest every single tonne of fishmeal requires almost five tonnes of fresh fish to be pulled from the sea. It’s no surprise then that fishermen are worried about depleted 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 has had “an impact on the management of fisheries resources to the detriment of future generations.” The owners of Kayar’s fishmeal factory, past and current, have denied creating any water or air pollution problems saying the facility is equipped with both odor and water treatment facilities.
Both Ndao and Mbengue are involved in a court case that aims to close Kayar’s fishmeal factory. Mbengue warns that without urgent action the economic damage done to the 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 factory for endangering the health of Kayar’s population. The owners of Kayar’s fishmeal factory, past and current, have denied creating any water or air pollution problems saying the facility is equipped with both odor and water treatment facilities.
In the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Abdoul Aziz Sy, deputy head of fishing services at the city’s busiest landing dock, estimates that since 2019, monthly yaboi catch levels have fallen from between 200 and 300 thousand tonnes to less than 50 thousand tonnes. He too blames the fishmeal production facilities, as well as the fisheries agreements that allow international trawlers to fish in Senegalese waters.
International trawling is a significant part of the drain on wild fish populations. The Senegalese government has been criticized for a lack of transparency in the foreign vessel licensing process, 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 hard to find in Senegal, fisheries scientist Ad Corten, who has worked on EU-Mauritania fishing agreements, said he estimates the yaboi population has lost about 10 to 20 percent of its numbers. “There’s very little left of what was there in the beginning,” he says.
FAO Recommends Stronger Regulations for Fishmeal Industry
Attempts to curb fishmeal and fish oil production are likely to be an uphill task. Prices are predicted to rise by as much as 8 percent, with forecasts suggesting the sector’s global value will expand to $10.3 billion, by 2027.
Interviewed in Kayar, Babacar Diallo, the fishmeal factory’s former director and new owner since July, denies any suggestion that fresh fish are 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 from fish factories all over Senegal.”
The fishmeal sector has pledged to prioritize using fewer whole fish and more waste from canning or other fish processing activities. But even if Diallo’s factory only uses fish waste — a claim many, including Aziz Sy, dispute — the FAO report describes Senegal’s fishmeal sector as mainly reliant on “catches of round and flat sardinellas” — yaboi, in other words.
One solution put forward by the FAO is stronger regulation to limit “the number, capacity and production” of the fish-based feed industry. A June 2021 report by Greenpeace and Changing Markets put it more starkly — arguing that Europe’s animal feed and fish farming sectors are “stealing” food from West Africa.
The fish meal industry is draining “overexploited resources” that are “critical for local populations,” the report finds, only to grind them up for industrial food animal operations.
“Final consumers of products derived from the fishmeal and fish oil industry should understand that they are part of the problem,” said one of the report’s authors, François Provost, who works with Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign. Provost urges consumers to pay attention to their choices to help bring about change: “They can help turn this broken food model around for the benefit of all.”
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and Journalismfund.eu.
Aïda Grovestins is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Dakar, covering West-Africa.
Sophie Kevany has a Masters in Journalism from Dublin City University and an undergraduate degree in History of Art and Classical Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin. A freelance journalist she writes regularly for The Guardian, The Irish Times and other publications. Previous experience includes stints with Dow Jones and Agence France Presse (AFP).
Richa Syal is an investigative journalist reporting on environmental crime and exploitation.