Environmental campaigners are calling on UK supermarkets to end sales of meat and farmed fish raised on fishmeal and oil from West Africa.
Research by Greenpeace Africa found the amount of fish extracted from the region by industrial vessels to be ground up for use in agriculture and aquaculture could feed 33 million people each year.
It found more than half a million tonnes of small pelagic fish – species living in the upper reaches of the open ocean – are taken from the region annually.
As well as farming, fishmeal and fish oil is also commonly used in dietary supplements, pet food and in cosmetics.
West Africa’s production of fishmeal and fish oil has grown 10-fold in the past decade from 13,000 tonnes in 2010 to more than 170,000 tonnes in 2019, the research found.
But Greenpeace, working with Netherlands-based organisation Changing Markets, found the industry is causing devastation among coastal communities in Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia.
They said over extraction is placing millions of people at risk of food insecurity, and putting local, small-scale fishermen and those involved in smoking and drying the catch out of work.
Processing plants generating fishmeal and fish oil have also been blamed for a sharp rise in air pollution and contaminating waterways close to their sites.
Aquaculture production was worth 263.6 billion US dollars (£185.8 billion) in 2018, the research found, and almost a fifth of the world’s total catch of wild fish is processed into fishmeal and fish oil.
The report, Feeding a Monster: How European animal feed industries are stealing food from west African communities, found 70% of all Mauritanian fish oil exports went to the EU in 2019.
Europe’s four largest aquafeed companies reported combined sales of 3.3 billion dollars (£2.3 billion) in 2017.
Globally, 69% of fishmeal and 75% of fish oil is used for aquafeed to produce farmed fish, such as salmon and trout.
Currently, half of all fish consumed around the world each year is farmed, the research found, with that figure expected to rise to 60% by 2030.
A large proportion of the remaining fishmeal is used in agriculture, predominantly for pig feed.
Greenpeace Africa and Changing Markets are now calling for a 50% reduction in industrial fishing in the region to allow stocks to recover.
They want to see tighter, well-enforced regulation in both West Africa and the EU to prevent over-exploitation in future and to stop unsustainably sourced fishmeal and oil products entering the EU market.
The two organisations are calling for a ban on fish fit for human consumption being used for fishmeal and oil, and for small-scale local fisherman and processors to be given a formal legal status to protect their rights to their fisheries.
Greenpeace Africa and Changing Markets also want to see EU-registered fleets barred from the fishing in the West Africa region unless a comprehensive management scheme to protect fish stocks is put in place.
Fishermen in India, Vietnam and The Gambia, many of them working in the fishmeal and oil industry, reported to researchers from Changing Markets said they are already witnessing the collapse of key fish stocks.
Some admitted that they are likely to be the last generation involved in fisheries, the researchers said.
Dr Ibrahime Cisse, senior campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said: “The fishmeal and fish oil industry, as well as all governments and companies supporting them, are basically robbing local populations of livelihoods and food in contradiction with international commitments on sustainable development, poverty alleviation, food security, and gender equality.”
Alice Delemare Tangpuori, campaigns manager at Changing Markets, said: “European aquafeed companies and retailers can no longer ignore this major human rights and environmental issue.
“Now is the time to rethink supply chains and rapidly phase out the use of wild-caught fish in farmed fish and other animals, to preserve these fish populations for future generations.”
Harouna Ismail Lebaye, president of the Nouadhibou branch of the Mauritanian Artisanal Fishing Free Federation, told companies and governments involved in the industry: “Your investments rob us of our fisheries resources, your investments starve us, your investments threaten our stability, your factories make us sick. It’s time to stop, now.”