The Gambian government must take all necessary steps to eliminate illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUUF), combat overfishing, and increase the transparency of fishing agreements to protect local communities in The Gambia, Amnesty International said today in a new report.
The new report, The human cost of overfishing: How the overuse of fisheries resources in Sanyang threatens human rights, examines the human rights impact of the fishing industry, including the activities of fishmeal and fish oil factories (FMFO) and the damage caused by foreign-owned industrial trawlers. In June 2021 and March-April 2022, Amnesty International conducted research in Banjul, the capital, and the coastal region of Sanyang which is both a tourism hub and a centre for fishing where a large fish oil factory is located.
Malpractice by certain actors in the fishing industry is harming the environment and undermining people’s livelihoods. The Gambian authorities must urgently take all necessary steps to hold them to account and protect the human rights of affected communities including their economic and social rights.Samira Daoud, Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Amnesty International
“The Gambian government and international community actors operating in the affected areas must ensure that foreign vessels and FMFO factories respect both national and international fishing regulations. It is crucial that local communities remain able to catch fish using sustainable methods.”
It is estimated that Gambia, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone together lose USD 2.3 billion annually to illegal fishing.
The report includes testimonies from fisherpersons, vendors, and restaurant owners in Sanyang, all of whom have seen their livelihoods threatened by the depletion of fish stocks. Many are struggling to buy enough fish due to a hike in prices.
‘Socio-economic rights under threat’
The situation in Sanyang, a coastal village reliant on the fishing sector, is particularly dire. In addition to the presence of foreign-owned industrial boats, which sometimes carry out illegal fishing, Nessim Fishing And Fish Processing Co., Ltd (Nessim), a foreign-owned FMFO factory, was built in the community in the end of 2017 and started operating in 2018.
The primary species targeted by FMFO factories are sardinella and bonga fish, which are essential to both the livelihood of coastal communities as well as being a hitherto affordable source of protein.
“Local communities are being deprived of their right to a decent standard of living as well as their right to health and food. The Gambian authorities must take urgent action to both better protect the environment and the fundamental rights of these communities. The socio-economic rights of communities in Sanyang are particularly under threat,” said Samira Daoud.
Women farmers working near Nessim’s factory say the productivity of their land has decreased, due to an increase since the factory commenced operations of pests and insects that destroy their vegetables. As a result, they are struggling to grow sufficient produce and have seen their profits drop.
If the coronavirus has bankrupted businesses, the fishmeal factory is doing worse than that […] We know corona would last a particular moment in time but about the fishmeal factory, we do not know when we are going to be out of the situation.”A restaurant owner in Sanyang
Owners of restaurants, lodges and juice bars along the beach all say they have lost clients due to the stench generated by the factory which Amnesty delegates experienced during their mission. This is severely impacting the local tourism industry.
Foreign vessels ‘take all the fish’
Local artisans in the fishing industry, including those who dry fish or work in smokeries, say foreign-owned fishing vessels drastically deplete fish, regardless of the regulations. A fisherman in Sanyang said: “Fishing has been difficult since we saw the big boats… they take all the fish.”
Abi*, a fish dryer, told Amnesty International: “Work is difficult now because there is no fish […]. I work for small boats. We work for them, and they give us fish as payment. Sometimes, they give us fish that we sell and don’t even get GMD50 (US$0.80) for it.”
Fishery workers are often forced to compete with foreign industrial vessels, which often, in the absence of sufficient patrols by the Gambian Navy, venture closer to the coast than they are authorized to do so in areas reserved for artisanal fishermen.
These illegal fishing practices severely impact the livelihoods of local communities, who depend on fishing for their survival. They also bring a risk of food insecurity, as fish provide a crucial source of protein for Gambians. The large quantity of fish exported each year through the activities of foreign industrial boats and fishmeal factories is rapidly depleting available fish stocks for local communities.
Destroying the local environment
The impact of overfishing on the environment is also deeply concerning. With fish populations declining to unsustainable levels, the biodiversity of marine life — there are at least 500 species of fish in The Gambia — is under threat.
In 2020, a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that both sardinella and bonga fish are being overexploited, while stocks of sardines are also being undermined. This overexploitation is due to the activities of all actors in the fishing industry, including fishmeal factories.
Members of the local community in Sanyang also expressed grave concerns about the environment. Nessim has been fined several times by the National Environmental Agency for not properly treating its wastewater, which it discharges into the sea. Fishermen that supply the factory have also dumped dead fish back into the water on several occasions after Nessim declined to purchase them, leaving the beach covered in dead fish.
“The Gambian authorities must thoroughly investigate the socio-economic and environmental impact of fishmeal and fish oil factories and provide remedies to those affected in the local community,” said Samira Daoud.
A lack of transparency and consultation
Many residents in Sanyang said Nessim, which started operating in the area in 2018, did not adequately consult with local communities. The company says it conducted consultations with the community before commencing its operations, yet more than a dozen residents impacted by the factory’s activities told Amnesty International they were not aware of any consultations taking place.
The Alkalo (local chief) of Sanyang said: “The problem is that the right information was not coming to the council of Elders. The MoU never went to the community. It was between the former development chairman on behalf of the community and the company, but no one has ever seen this MoU,” he said.
None of the women Amnesty International spoke to who have been gardening for decades on the site next to the factory were consulted about its arrival. One of them said: “Before the factory was built, this is where we were making rice. We just saw boys cutting into the lands and [the former chairman of the Village Development Committee] told us that they will give us rice… It was a community land, a rice field for all people.”
“The Gambian authorities must ensure that companies, as part of their Environmental Impact Assessment Study, hold meaningful consultations with communities potentially affected by their project before their work begins which is mandated by the 2014 Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations. Nessim must regularly consult with the community and comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including by implementing a due diligence process to address the factory’s impact on human rights,” said Samira Daoud.
“The government must also make public information about fishmeal factories and the number of foreign vessels authorized to fish in Gambia’s waters. It must also allocate the necessary resources for the Navy to combat IUU fishing. The Gambian authorities and international community actors operating in Gambia’s waters must act now to protect the rights of local fishing communities and preserve the environment for future generations.”
All companies in the fishmeal supply chain should also be conducting human rights due diligence, which can include public reporting about the origins of their products. Companies purchasing fishmeal should map their supply chains and analyse the human rights risks that they may be directly linked to, through their relationship with suppliers.
Amnesty International observed first-hand some of the impacts the scarcity of fish and the company’s activities have on the community. The delegation interviewed 63 people, including Nessim Fishing and Fish Processing workers, members of civil society organizations, government officials, hospitality staff, and other affected members of the community.
The socio-economic and environmental impact of overfishing in Gambia are in contradiction with Gambia’s obligations under the ICESCR and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights, specifically regarding the right to food, the right to work and the right to health.
*Name changed to protect identity