Exclusive: With soaring meat consumption around the world, vital omega 3-rich fish stocks destined for human mouths in western Africa are being snatched by foreign food companies to feed factory-farmed animals – and ultimately the populations of wealthier countries

"We don’t have gold, or petrol or diamonds, the sea is the only resource that our country has," says Mariane Tening Ndiaye, a fish trader and head of the women’s fish smoking association, as she takes me around her domain behind the market. Low-strung platforms covered in flayed fish and blackened ovens stretch away into the distance, the air thick with the stench of rotting fish guts.

This site is one of two fish smoking centres in Joal, a coastal town 70 miles south of Senegal’s capital Dakar, part of a fishing industry that employs almost a million people in the country and supplies many more across West Africa with dried fish. 

“Five hundred women do business here,” says Ndiaye. “We bring the money into the homes to feed kids, build houses, invest in pirogues (narrow wooden canoes) for our husbands. We are in charge." 

Ndiaye and her fellow fish smokers face an unexpected new threat to their livelihoods, however, from factory farms on the other side of the world.

Walky-talkies hiss on the lapels of security guards nearby, round-the-clock protection for a controversial Russian-backed fishmeal plant that is currently under construction in the town. A dozen fishmeal plants have been built in recent years along the Senegalese coastline, with more planned as entrepreneurs flock to the region in the hunt for cheap sardine and herring, known as sardinella, to cook into fish powder and export as farm animal feed.