World Ocean Day: why expanding industrial aquaculture is not the solution to protecting our ocean

By Amelia Cookson

Today marks World Oceans Day, a day dedicated to mobilising collective action to protect and restore our ocean. The theme for this year is “Catalysing Action for Our Ocean & Climate”. If past performance is anything to go by, many businesses, including salmon farming companies, will be using this day as a marketing opportunity to promote their corporate sustainability initiatives. Unfortunately, despite all the good words, there is not much appetite to tackle the structural drivers of many of the dangers facing our ocean, key among which are overfishing and climate change.

At Feedback, we’ve spent several years campaigning to highlight the damage industrial aquaculture is wreaking on wild fish populations as a result of its enormous appetite for wild-caught fish, which is used in feed in the form of fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO). There is currently a lot of enthusiasm within global institutions and governments about aquaculture’s potential as part of what the FAO calls the Blue Transformation. However, the type of aquaculture which is being promoted – the farming of input-intensive species such as salmon, sea bass and prawns – has huge adverse effects on the oceans, as well as on the people who depend on them for their livelihoods.

Annually, around one-fifth of the global marine catch is used to produce FMFO, the bulk of which goes towards feed for the aquaculture industry. This means that wild-caught fish, such as sardines, anchovies and herring, which also provides nutritious food to millions of people around the world, is being used to create FMFO to feed salmon.

Fishmeal factory © Shutterstock

Earlier this year, in coalition with West African and Norwegian organisations, Feedback published a research report on the Norwegian salmon farming industry. The report, titled ‘Blue Empire’, was also featured on the front page of the Financial Times. Our research shows how the Norwegian salmon farming industry’s appetite for wild fish to feed farmed salmon is harming communities in West Africa.

Norway is the world’s biggest salmon farming country, supplying more than half of global production. Norwegian companies occupy eleven out of the top 20 slots in the list of global producers of farmed salmon. The country is also home to the world’s largest salmon farmer, MOWI, which had a turnover of nearly €5 billion in 2022, and supplies supermarkets across Europe.

In our report, we calculated that in 2020 nearly 2 million tonnes of wild fish were extracted from the ocean to feed Norwegian farmed salmon. This is equivalent to a staggering 2.5% of global marine catch. And this is just to supply fish oil to the Norwegian salmon farming industry.

A proportion of this wild fish is sourced from West Africa, a region where food insecurity has hit a 10-year high. Countries such as Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia have become hubs for FMFO production. In the past decade, the number of FMFO factories in West Africa has increased from 5 to 49. Mauritania has become a major hub of FMFO production and now sits amongst the top 10 FMFO producers globally.

The growth of FMFO factories is swallowing up the region’s fish, which were once abundant and are a key source of income and accessible nutritious food for coastal and inland communities. We calculate that Norway’s demand for West African fish oil is depriving up to 4 million people in the region of fish to meet their annual nutritional needs. The FMFO factories’ demand for wild fish is also driving up the prices of fish in several West African markets, making it unaffordable for the local population. All of this is disproportionately impacting women. The fish targeted by FMFO factories contain key nutrients such as zinc, calcium, and iron. These nutrients are key for women’s health in West Africa, where more than half the female population suffer from anaemia. The decline in fish populations is also threatening traditional livelihoods such as small-scale fisheries and fishmongers, forcing thousands to migrate each year as they face poor prospects.

“This is big business stripping life from our oceans and depriving our fishing communities of their livelihoods. The science is clear, it will soon be too late. They must stop now. These industries established in West Africa use fish to produce fish meal and fish oil to feed animals in Europe and Asia while the African population needs this fish to feed themselves.” – Dr Aliou Ba, Senior Oceans Campaign Manager for Greenpeace Africa.

Women activists with their empty traditional calabash bowls highlight their grassroots campaigns against industrial overfishing © Clément Tardif – Greenpeace

By drawing attention to the injustices linked to the expansion of this industry, our analysis has shown how the Norwegian salmon industry is entrenching global inequity. The extraction of wild fish from the Global South to feed salmon in the Global North which is then sold at a premium is driving a new type of food colonialism. We argue that what Mowi claims is a ‘Blue Revolution’ is in fact a ‘Blue Empire’. Whilst Norway may consider its salmon farming industry to be a corporate success story, this success is coming at the expense of communities and fish populations in West Africa.

This World Ocean Day, we are continuing to challenge the global aquaculture industry and its extractive practices, which are harming our ocean and the communities that rely on it. In light of the findings we published in our Blue Empire report earlier this year, we’re also calling on Norwegian decision-makers to stop further growth in salmon farming and mandate genuine transparency throughout the supply chain. Want to take action? You can sign our open letter to the Norwegian government asking them to take action to bring an end to the web of destruction caused by this industry.

Amelia Cookson is a campaigner at Feedback, focusing on industrial aquaculture. She has previous corporate experience working in sustainability teams within a range of food businesses, dealing with net zero strategies, sustainability data, comms and all things B Corp. However, with the growing belief that systems change best occurs outside the corporate setting, made the transition to campaigning.

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 8th June 2024