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We are eating the poor man’s fish

Aqua culture is one of the fastest growing food-producing sectors, according to the UN, and the sector now accounts for 50 percent of the world's fish that is used for food. Farming of fish is key, if we want to feed the world in the future. However, the poorest people in the world are at risk of starving, if the wealthy countries increasingly eat farmed salmon and trout, critics say.
The Pelagic fish are dissapearing along the coasts of West Africa. Concerned marine biologists and ngo’s are accusing the fish feed industry of affecting food security and livelihoods for the World’s poorest countries, when they catch fish for aqua culture instead of food for people.

Why you should spend 6 minutter on this article:

When you buy a salmon in the supermarket, it may have been farmed on feed made from fish meal, which is derived from fish in Chile, Iceland or poor countries like Mauritania. But some of the fish used for fish feed could also have gone directly to food for humans. This series focuses on the issues that millions of tonnes of fish could be been eaten by humans, instead is used for forage to farmed fish.

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Denmark – a key player

  • The Danish producers of fish meal, fish oil and fish feed play a significant part in the global cycle for aqua culture. Denmark is the biggest producer of fish meal and fish oil, as well as eager traders in the global market.
  • Nearly half of all fish meal and fish oil imported for the EU, goes to Denmark, numbers from European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA) show.

We have become better at eating fish over the last years, but we can do better, Danish Health Authorities say. Fish are full of selenium, iodine and d-vitamins, hence, we should all eat about 350 grams of fish per week.

However, the wild fish stock of the World are not doing well. The UN Agricultural Organisation (FAO) have warned about overfishing, whilst breeding of especially salmon and trout have exploded over the last few years. 

Norway is the World’s largest producer of farmed salmon. Every year Norway produces around a million tons of salmon to markets around the world. In comparison, Denmark produced around 48.000 tons of fish and shellfish in 2017, according to Danish National Statistics. 

But farmed fish also eat fish. And this is where the problems start to occur. 

Catching fish for fish feed instead as food for humans drains the World’s oceans from small, so called pelagic fish. The pelagic species are sandeel, anchovies and krill, which are all an import food source for larger fish. That worries experts that Danwatch have spoken to. 

“The increasing demand for fishmeal for aquaculture is putting a lot of pressure on pelagics worldwide and aquaculture demand for animal protein is increasing, today this demand is in competition with human consumption, says Philippe Cury, senior scientist at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in Belgium.

The pelagics should be used for food not for feeding animals”.

Cheaper and healthier dietary in the world

Fish farming means cheaper fish, which again can lead to more nutritious dietary around the world, supporters of fish farming says. Critics, however, say that the increase in the number of aquaculture farms make the demand for fish for fish feed larger. Fish, which could have been eaten by humans instead, they claim. 

A study from 2017, Most fish destined for fishmeal production are fool-grade fish, concluded, that 90 percent of the fish used in fish feed could have been eaten by humans. 

Daniel Pauly from the University of British Columbia is one of the authors behind the study, and have been researching fishing populations in West Africa for two decades:  

“If edible fish are made into fish meal, it increases the price of fish for humans, who have to eat them and that affects food safety. West Africa have a large problem with food safety, especially because of climate change”, says Daniel Pauly. 

In June 2019, Greenpeace published a report, A Waste of Fish, which concludes that “food safety and livelihood for the local community in West Africa is being threatened by the expansion of the fish meal and fish oil industries in Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia”. 

Dr. Ibrahima Cisse, Oceans Campaign Manager for Greenpeace, says: 

“We are losing hundreds of thousands of edible fish to the fish meal and fish oil exporters, and this potentially affects 40 million African consumers”.


The fishing boats are busy in the port of Nouadhibou, Mauritania.

Five kilos of fish for one kilo of fish meal

Just like in oceans, lakes and rivers species like zander, turbot, salmon and trout in farms live of fish, small pelagic fish. Therefore, industrial fisheries around the world catch species like sardines, anchovies and krill, which are made into fish meal and fish oil, and then sold as animal feed. 

About one fifth of the world’s catches of wild fish are used for fish meal or fish oil, and the majority of this is turned into fish feed. 

Now back to the salmon. 

If a farmed salmon is caught, when it weighs between two and five kilos, it has eaten between two and nine kilos of fish feed. Fish feed consists mainly of plants, algae or soy and cut offs from fish factories, which are heads, tales and fish bones, and about 30 percent fish flour. In total, five kilos of pelagic fish are needed for one kilo of fish meal

This means, that a farmed salmon between two and five kilos have eaten between three and 13.5 kilos of pelagic fish, when it is ready to be caught and sold in stores.


What did a 5 kg salmon eat before it goes on the dining table?

9 kg of fish fead, which consist of

about 6 kg of plants, algae, soy and cut offs from filet factories

3 kg of fish meal

It takes approximately 13,5 kg to produce 3 kg of fish meal

Sources: Marine Ingredient Denmark,, Greenpeace ect.

Fish to fish from poor countries

One of the places that experiences overfishing of pelagic fish is Mauritania in West Africa. Once, there was plenty of fish in the seas of Mauritania, but today the three largest pelagic species, round and flat sardinella and bonga, are disappearing, according to FAOs latest evaluation.  

Bonga, round and flat sardinella are all used for fish meal and fish oil.  

“These species are widely overfished”, says Daniel Pauly. 

On average, every Mauritian eat between eight and 20 kilos of fish per year, according to FAOs calculations, and many of these fish are sardinella and bonga.   

During recent years, these species have been increasingly attractive to an increasing amount of factories located along the coast, east of the countries largest coastal city, Nouadhibou. 

The fishermen in Nouadhibou sell a lot of their catch to these factories that make the fishes into fish meal and fish oil, which is exported to Russia, China and the EU. The fish meal and -oil industry is increasing and have made Mauritania into one of West Africa’s largest exporters of pelagic fishes.  

“This industry will destroy the Sardinella stock in the region, but not before it will have reduced the local consumption of fish, i.e. affected the incomes and food security of the people in West-Africa”, Daniel Pauly writes in an email to Danwatch. 

Danish import from West Africa

Most of the fish meal and – oil imported to Denmark comes from Iceland, Norway and Chile, and the West African countries, Morocco and Mauritania, are number seven on the list. In 2018, Mauritania was the seventh largest supplier of fish oil to Denmark, and Morocco was the seventh largest supplier of fish meal, statistics from the Danish Fisheries Agency show.  

We asked Philippe Cury, what companies could do to refrain from affecting food security in West Africa, when they buy fish meal and fish oil from Mauritania and Morocco. 

“They should stop”, is his answer in short.

“West Africa has a large problem with food security, and it is serious”.

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