Voices from Sanyang: Ibrahima, the artisanal fisherman

 The fishing situation here in Gambia is now poor, poor and poorer. It is due to the fishmeal factory coming and having these big boats coming to fish, this has reduced small boats work. Because of the factory, they have these big boats here, but the Gambia government has a contract with this company to fish in our waters anytime.  

Ibrahima, artisanal fisherman 

When Amnesty International visited Sanyang in the West Coast Region of Gambia in March 2022, the contrast between the glorious landscape prized by tourists and the chain of dozens of men running back and forth endlessly while carrying hundreds of baskets loaded with fish on their heads, was shocking. In the meantime, artisanal fisherfolk were sitting on the beach mending their nets and drinking tea, as they had done for as long as anyone can remember.  

Around them, there was a chain of dozens of men who were running back and forth endlessly, carrying hundreds of baskets loaded with fish on their heads. The pace was relentless, driven by the fact that the men are paid by the basket, so, speed is key. In the frenzy, some fish would fall to the ground and women on the beach, without skipping a beat, would pick them up and put them in their bags so they could sell them later at the market and get some money to support their families.  

Even children took part in this ritual. They knew the rule: anything that fell on the sand was up for grabs. With their plastic bags, they picked up all the fish that fell from the baskets on the heads of the carriers or when the latter were loading the lorries which were waiting to be fully loaded before taking the fish to the fishmeal factory.   

It was already midday and an increasing number of people had rushed to the beach to unload more fish from returning pirogues (canoes). The factory supervisor, who was on the beach overseeing the whole operation, said that they had only loaded 2 tonnes of fish that day. The back and forth to the factory by the carriers was incessant. Yet, he was disappointed, saying this was not a good day and that he hoped the other pirogues would bring more fish. It takes about 4.5kg of fish to make 1kg of fishmeal.  

Seeing the number of fish caught – even on what was considered a bad day – was staggering. It was a never-ending ballet on the shore. But one that holds a stark warning – this level of exploitation may be very profitable to the fishmeal factories waiting to receive the fish, but it is agonizingly clear that it is not sustainable for the environment and local communities.  

The local people in Sanyang know this only too well. They know that, in the long term, this exploitation of their coastal waters by the big foreign trawlers and the fishmeal factories is not sustainable at all. The faces of the people Amnesty International interviewed and their stories conveyed deep concern about the larger impact all this will have on their community – the increased prices of staple foods, the rise in unemployment among people who live from traditional/artisanal fishing and the growing food insecurity in a population for whom fish is an essential source of protein. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, between 2015 and 2020, the number of people affected by food insecurity increased in Gambia from 5% to 8%. 

The artisanal fishermen sitting on the beach told Amnesty International that it was getting more and more difficult for them to find fish. The reasons for this were on full display – the scale and might of the international fishing industry. Local fishermen blamed the huge trawlers from China and Europe and pirogues working for the fishmeal factory for emptying their sea by removing tonnes and tonnes of fish – fish that is either directly exported, to Europe and other countries or turned into fish meal powder by three factories in Gambia that is used as feed for pig farms or salmon in foreign aquaculture farms. The factory impacting the people in Sanyang belongs to the Nessim Fishing and Fish Processing Co. Ltd, a Mauritanian-owned company; it was the last of the three factories to be opened in Gambia.  

The devastation of communities and destruction of their way of life should be something that the Gambian government takes urgent action to address. Yet so far, it has failed to protect the human rights of its people in the face of an industry that is pouring waste to the delicate ecological balance of the area on which these communities rely.  

* A pseudonym has been used to protect the interviewee’s security and privacy. 

Listening to the voices of Sanyang and the stories of suffering from members of the community, it is hard to understand why the Gambian authorities are failing to act to defend the human rights of the people affected by the fishmeal factory and foreign trawlers. Clearly the voices of those championing the benefits of profits are louder and stronger – but the profits are not reaching the people paying the price for mass exploitation of Gambia’s coastal waters. 

No matter who shouts loudest, the Gambian authorities have responsibilities that they must fulfil – including ensuring the rights of the population to food, work, health and a safe environment.  

The Gambian government has a duty to protect these rights and pass legislation requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence in their operations and supply chains and ensure proper monitoring of Gambia’s waters. It also has an obligation to ensure transparency and allow easy public access to information about fishmeal factories and foreign trawlers and investigate the possible detrimental impact of their operations. 

The Nessim fishmeal factory must be transparent about its activities, regularly consult with the community and follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including by putting in place an ongoing and proactive human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent, mitigate and address the factory’s impact on human rights. Given the potential high economic and environmental impact of its activities, it must phase out the use of fish that according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are already overexploited, such as sardinella and bonga fish.  

Companies in the supply chain of fishmeal factories also have a role to play. They need to conduct supply chain due diligence and publicly disclose their due diligence policies and practices, in accordance with international standards, and take action, in cooperation with other relevant actors, to mitigate or remediate any harm caused.  

Responsibilities for the situation also lie further afield. The international community, including countries that have signed fishing agreements with Gambia, need to regulate the aquaculture industry to limit the use of fishmeal and fish oil made from already overexploited species and increase transparency regarding their supply chain. They cannot carry on closing their eyes and ears because the sights and smells of Sanyang are far from them – out of sight must not mean out of mind.  

Join Amnesty International members and supporters in their campaign to protect Gambia’s coastal waters, marine resources and communities. Act now by emailing the President of Gambia, Adama Barrow, to demand that he ensures the implementation of Amnesty International’s recommendations. 

* A pseudonym has been used to protect the interviewee’s security and privacy.

VOICES of sanyang: #SaveGambianSeas #ProtectGambianCommunities

The members of the communities affected by the overexploitation of the seas through the activities of Nessim Fishmeal Factory and foreign industrial trawlers are sharing their stories with us. These firsthand stories are meant to let you know more about why we’re standing with Sanyang to save Gambian seas and protect Gambian communities rights.

Read MORE and act now.

published on worLd ocean day – 8 JUNE

Adja, the fish smoker

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Habibatou, the gardener

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Barry, the lodge owner

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Ibrahima, the artisanal fisherman

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Mohamed, the activist

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.@BarrowPresident, you have a duty to #ProtectGambianCommunities against human rights abuses by all actors, including fishing companies. You can act now to mitigate the adverse socio-economic and environmental impact of overfishing on #Gambia coast.