‘The Smell of Money’: The Outlaw Ocean Project investigates pollution in Gambia

The Outlaw Ocean Project's newest investigation focuses on the tiny nation of Gambia, which like many of its West African neighbors has embraced the lucrative production of fishmeal, used around the world in the inland farming of fish. But this industry, widely hailed by conservationists as the best hope for slowing ocean depletion, is polluting Gambian waters, decimating its fish stocks and threatening the lives of its own citizens.

Video Transcript


MUSTAPHA MANNEH: When they first dumped the waste there, it changed the water color red instantly. Everything was completely dead-- crabs, fish, even all the plants surrounding the place were all done. They all died.

- And that happened in the beginning days of the factory, before they started running--

MUSTAPHA MANNEH: Before they started.

- OK.

MUSTAPHA MANNEH: People were arrested for removing a pipe that was planted there illegally, without the government consent. Instead of prosecuting the offenders, they prosecute the activists who are trying to do everything to make sure the environment is protected.

If Gambia is destroyed, it's destroyed for us. And is Gambia is made, It's made for us. I will run and come back. But I would never stay away

We are coming back again.

- At root, this seems to be a story about Africa as small as country, the Gambia, and it's David and Goliath struggle to protect its own waters. The West African coast is one of the few places left where major industrial players, mostly Asian and European, haven't yet depleted the waters of all their creatures and resources. And in the last several years, there's been a rush here to begin industrial level fishing.

In this case, you have these three big Chinese factories, that essentially take massive quantities of fish, and grind them down into these high protein pellets, called fishmeal.

MUSTAPHA MANNEH: The entire community was affected when the factory start operating. The smell is unbearable.

- And this is the golden meat factory, right here?

MUSTAPHA MANNEH: Yes, cameras should be put away, because you get attacked. You can get assaulted. They have seen journalists as their enemy.

AHMED MANJANG: A Lot of secrecy, because we don't know the chemicals they use. They shouldn't be anywhere, one kilometer from open water bodies. That's an international convention.

- And the government itself isn't doing spot checks?

AHMED MANJANG: Exactly. In fact, those who are checking, they only come there to collect money.


- Fish meal is one of these products that you'll never see, but you're consuming all the time. It's used primarily as a protein supplement in the booming industry of aquaculture. It's a huge market, and growing by the day.

And it's unbelievably destructive for the oceans, because you need huge quantities of fish. What I'm hearing from local fishermen is that boats are appearing at night on that coastline, more than ever before. They look to be Senegalese, or Asian trawlers.

These Gambian fishermen are also saying that their catches are plummeting. 50% of the protein, consumed by the Gambians, comes from the sea. And fishermen are already starting to say they can't catch even bare, subsistence level fish.

When the local guys have tried to find out what's happening, how many boats are there, how much are they taking out of the water, just basic questions, so they can monitor how things are going, they're getting no kind of information. The panic that I sense from them is that next generation is going to have nothing to sustain themselves with, because the waters will be empty.


At minimum, I think what the local fishermen want, is for the government to police these waters to the letter of the law, and to stop the illegality that's happening out there. But the Gambia doesn't really have the ability to police these waters. And that's partially why Sea Shepherd's here.


- Got a call from Peter, the captain of the ship that I'm going to be boarding.

- We got-- we got to start going.

- He said that they're doing a patrol off the coast of the Gambia.

- Good.


- The Gambians know there's a huge problem on the water out here. And there's rampant illegality. The job we had was to show it.


- From here?


- Yeah, OK. Then we could follow the coast. And if we see any boats that are inside the nine miles, and they're going two, three knots, so trawling speed, then those are the targets. That makes sense?

- Yeah.

- The first time out, we saw a vessel, didn't know who it was, ran at it.

- They're fishing. Film that. They're fishing.

- And suddenly, it's the vessel that we were most interested in, because it's connected to this really sketchy fishmeal plant on land.

- Grab the ladder, and do not let go. [INAUDIBLE]

- Bridge, Peter, we're on board.




- Can we see your license?

- This is a vessel that had its transponder off. So it was already a dark vessel. But even worse, it had no fish log.

- The fishing vessels got to have a navigation log, which is their positions every day, where they fished, the quantity of fish. You can see the last entry here was on the 21st of January. And then there is nothing.

This is a dark ship. Who knows where they fished?


- He's saying that they can't start going to [INAUDIBLE] yet. He needs two hours to make some repairs. We've seen them motoring all morning. It's a delay tactic, so he can get on the radio.







- We'll bring the Navy team from the south, in the rim, back here. And then from here, we'll go straight, try to grab the lucky [INAUDIBLE].


- The second vessel, 10 times worse. The living quarters were horrific, some of the worst I've seen. There was this space, just like a crawl space, where all these guys were sleeping at night.

Six, six of you?

- Six people, yeah, sleeping in here. Sometimes we close here, but the water still is coming in.

- So hot, this is-- I've never, ever seen this bad.

Few things rattle me these days. But for some reason, that space really rattled me.

- The local fishermen testified that these guys have been trawling very close to the shore. And on top of that, the living conditions are really not for humans, not even for animals, but not for humans.



- It does seem like what happened here is kind of a repeated African story, in that you had just another wave of extraction occurring. First it was men, women, as slaves. Then it was natural resources on land. And now, it's moved offshore.

(CHANTING): Power to the people! Power to the people! Power to the people!

- I think the local fishermen want the government to tap the brakes on signing of deals with these massive factories, and also giving licenses to these industrial sized ships, that are pulling fish too aggressively. But the forces of the industry that's taking all this fish are just massive.

And you see on land, how little control even local villagers have. You see how little interest the government has to do anything about these crimes.

MUSTAPHA MANNEH: China has given a lot of loans to Gambia, given a lot of so-called grants to Gambia, polluting the mindset of our politicians. They get away with anything. So, because China is involved, this fact they will never be closed.

AHMED MANJANG: We are taking the natural one and giving it to the Chinese. They convert it into powder, send it to China, feed the fish cheap, and bring it to Gambia.

- Resell at an expensive price, while the local fishermen are put out of work.

- Yeah, exactly. So the locals are competing directly with these fishmeal factories whose daily turnover is 500 tons. And they're pumping fishmeal waste into the ocean, because there is no control. What we are seeing is not development. This is exploitation.