24th Jun 24 by Yves Reichling

It is time to put a stop to the practice of extracting whole, wild fish in their millions to supply the global feed industry!

In a recent article, the Mauritanian Institute for Oceanography and Fisheries, French fish oil supplier Olvea and the Marine Stewardship Council use the platform of science to pursue a corporate agenda and to promote certification as a model to replicate across West Africa based on the example of a controversial Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) in Mauritania.  

In reality, the Fisheries Improvement Project the authors are seeking to justify has substantial flaws. NGOs and small-scale fishers have repeatedly denounced the initiative as ‘certifying the unsustainable’The FIP’s sponsors are principally producers of fishmeal and fish oil, as well as global feed producers such as Cargill and Skretting which supply aquaculture producers in the Global North. Recently, a report by Partner Africa, commissioned by the Global Roundtable for Marine Ingredients, highlighted numerous problems linked to the production of fishmeal and fish oil in the region including pollution from factories, loss of income and opportunities to work, and the depletion of fish stocks. 

According to the authors of the Marine Policy article, “The idea behind FIPs is to use market incentives in seafood value chains to stimulate improvements in fisheries management, which may lead to environmental improvement.” Since the inception of the FIP in 2017, sponsors of the project including Olvea have continued sourcing fishmeal and oil from factories in Mauritania as documented by the Mauritanian Society for the Commercialisation of Fisheries Products (SMCP)the CFFA, and Feedback, contributing to the problem of overfishing that the FIP is meant to solve.  

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) EAF-Nansen Programme has called the state of the once-abundant sardinella fisheries, which are targeted by the FMFO industry, “alarming” and data shows a precipitous decline in the round sardinella catch since 2018.  

Braham et al Fisheries Research 2024  

The FIP was scheduled to provide a progress report at the end of February, which it has so far failed to do. With the project set to end next year and taking into account all of the above, we cannot see this initiative as anything but a greenwashing attempt by an industry threatened by further reputational risk through their persistent extraction of fish essential to ecosystems and people’s livelihoods in a region struggling with food insecurity. The article’s authors themselves clearly outline the motivations of the industry to be part of the FIP: 

The FIP is recognised under the MarinTrust’s ‘Improver Programme’, which allows factories who are FIP participants and pass a MarinTrust factory audit to sell product ‘from the MarinTrust Improver Programme’. This is not the same as MarinTrust certified product, but nevertheless allows some direct commercial benefit (access to a higher value market), according to FIP-participating companies, and as such is an appropriate tool to anticipate the end of the FIP with the goal of having both the fishery and the suppliers MarinTrust certified. (p.3) 

Going back to the FIP’s impact and benefits to marine ecosystems and local communities, we struggle to find evidence for it in this article. We’re left with the following hypothesis, but miss references or tangible evidence: “in conclusion, a credible FIP, and other engagements with certification programmes, have provided Mauritania with a useful tool to bring together the private and public sector to address management challenges, as well as mobilising international resources which can be used in Mauritania in a flexible way. The benefits brought by engagement with certification programmes also include clear goals and a transparent and participatory ethos”. 

With little progress to show since its inception, and the ongoing depletion of target fish populations, the FIP provides a free-pass to companies aiming for high-value markets, without them needing to comply with the demanding environmental or social standards of these markets. According to the authors of the article, the problems in Mauritanian fisheries stem from weak state regulation: “Weak state regulation has failed to control capacity, and stakeholders are turning to value-chain arrangements such as industry coalitions, fishery improvement projects (FIPs) and certification to support progress towards management objectives in the face of this expansion.” 

Research by Feedback shows that fish sourced from Northwest Africa (FAO 34) to supply fish oil to the Norwegian salmon farming industry in 2020 could have provided between 2.5 million and 4 million people in the region with a year’s supply of fish sufficient to meet their nutritional needs. The small fish targeted by the FMFO industry contain key nutrients including iron, zinc, and calcium that are those most needed for children’s cognitive development and for women in West Africa, where more than half of the female population suffer from anaemia. This is happening at a time when hunger is on the rise across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and new research shows that of eight global regions, SSA is the one most severely impacted by lack of micronutrient availability 

We should not allow FMFO and feed companies to drive exploitative practices under the guise of a mere promise to improve fisheries that has for more than half a decade failed to deliver. It is time to put a stop to the practice of extracting whole, wild fish in their millions to supply the global feed industry, depriving millions of people in Africa of nutritious food and putting entire communities’ livelihoods at risk. 

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