The Cost of Salmon in Senegal

by Ray Grigg

Senegal — almost on the opposite side of the planet from British Columbia — is a coastal country where the continent of Africa bulges westward into the Atlantic Ocean. It is a poor place, with most of its animal protein coming from the sustainable 200 tonnes of mostly sardinella that its many small pirogues harvest daily from its rich coastal waters. About 600,000 people in the country are employed in catching, drying, distributing and marketing this fresh and dried fish.

This critically important source of food and employment is now at risk because of the arrival of factories from Korea, China and Russia. As of 2013, 11 huge factories have been built on Senegal’s coast to process the local marine bounty into fishmeal for salmon farming and livestock rearing. Foreign trawlers will be providing most of the raw material to the factories — just one Russian plant, Flash Africa, will need 460 tonnes per day to produce its 46 tonnes of fishmeal for the global market. For the Senegalese, their stocks are collapsing, local fishers are returning with nearly empty nets, and the cost of fish is escalating beyond affordability (Guardian Weekly, Feb. 21/14).

This scenario is being repeated in Chile where the country’s loss of fish stocks is being described as “catastrophic”. Chile’s 85,000 “artisan” fishers now have to go further and further offshore for fewer and fewer fish. Their traditional catch of 4.5 million tonnes per year in the 1990s has dwindled to 300,000 tonnes. Populations of the iconic jack mackerel — its rich, oily protein is valued as a staple food in Chile and Africa — have collapsed by as much as 90 percent. Hake, sea bass and anchovy are also in crisis. The collapse is attributed to fleets of foreign trawler factory ships, largely unencumbered by regulations or weather, that are emptying the South Pacific of fish.

This is part of the looting of the southern oceans by wealthy countries that is sending poor countries into economic and nutritional distress. As with the sardinella of Senegal, much of the industrial harvest of Chile’s jack mackerel is reduced to fishmeal for growing cattle, pigs and salmon — more than 5 kilos of jack mackerel are required to raise 1 kilo of farmed salmon. The South Pacific’s catch of 30 million tonnes of jack mackerel has fallen to 3 million in two decades. While local fishers and Chileans are left without fish, the response of the trawler fleets is simply to move farther south toward the edge of Antarctica to catch and process what’s left. Daniel Pauly, the eminent University of British Columbia oceanographer, considers the falling numbers of jack mackerel in the southern Pacific Ocean to be an alarming indicator. “This is the last of the buffaloes,” he told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist. “When they’re gone, everything will be gone… . This is the closing of the frontier” (Center for Public Integrity, Jan. 25/12).

One of the largest ships targeting jack mackerel is owned by Pacific Andes International Holdings, known as PacAndes. Based in Hong Kong, the company spent $100 million in 2008 to rebuild a 750-foot, 50,000-ton oil tanker into a floating factory named the Lafayette. This Russian-flagged vessel collects fish from attendant trawlers and has a processing capacity of 547,000 tonnes per year — the sustainable catch limit for South Pacific jack mackerel is calculated at 520,000 tonnes. Sadly, the fate of this humble little fish is indicative of the progressive collapse of stocks in all oceans.

This industrial pillaging of the oceans would be tragic enough if all the fish were being used efficiently to feed the world’s burgeoning human population. But much of the catch is processed into fishmeal. And the salmon farming industry is a dependent partner in this inefficient and unsustainable use of marine fish.

The industry has been fastidious in promoting its pride and image as a producer of quality food — although this claim seems to be at odds with the health advisory warnings and escalating parasite problems coming out of Norway. Unfortunately, salmon farming grows a carnivorous product that sells beyond the affordability of most of the world’s poor consumers — including those in Senegal and Chile.

But this is characteristic of the destructive distortion that has occurred in industrial farming. Cattle, pigs, fowl and other domestic animals are herbivores that were never fish eaters. Fish resources have better and wiser uses. As a strategy, salmon farming is similarly unsustainable because feeding fish to grow another fish as a edible product is a highly inefficient way of making food — farming has never grown sheep to feed to tigers so we can eat tiger meat. If we must eat meat, the long history of farming has found that the only viable strategy is to eat herbivores.

Salmon farming is an anomaly in history and aquaculture, only supported today by the fleets from an industrial fishing industry that strain the oceans of perfectly edible fish that then get rendered into fishmeal. Farmed salmon is a product for rich people, paid for by the loss of sustenance fish for poor people. Such salmon are not going to feed the world’s population; growing them is simply going to accelerate the pillaging of oceans so that no one has fish.

So the recent announcement by the BC Salmon Farmers Association that they intend a 100,000 tonne increase in net-pen farmed salmon production by 2020, with a further increase to 150,000 tonnes by 2025 is simply bad news. This ostensibly doubles the production of BC’s farmed salmon, disregards the cautionary recommendations of the Canadian government’s $26 million Cohen Commission Report, and forebodes even more fish shortages for the poor people of Chile, Senegal and elsewhere. Filling more net-pens with more farmed salmon is a means to emptying the oceans of all fish.