A quarter of the fish caught at sea don’t end up on plates, but go straight to factories, where they’re churned into powder and pellets to feed the growing demand for fishmeal. The Fish You (Don’t Know You) Eat is an investigation that assembled an unprecedented team of scientists and journalists from three continents to uncover a supply chain from Latin America to West Africa to China that is polluting the ocean, causing food insecurity and illness in coastal communities, and risking the collapse of fisheries.
The year-long investigation was researched and reported by sixteen journalism, three fisheries and two medical students enrolled in Global Reporting Program (GRP), which brings graduate students together to do deep-dives into complex global issues. After spending months reviewing data and scholarly research, fellows travelled to three nodes of the fishmeal supply chain: the growing demand from China – where most of the world’s fish farms operate; the supply from Peru – the world’s largest producer of fishmeal; and increasing resistance to the industry by coastal communities in West Africa.
China is home to 60 percent of the world’s aquaculture industry and requires vast quantities of fishmeal to feed these farms. Fellows discovered that in these waters, since Chinese fishermen have pushed industrial fisheries to near collapse, they’ve turned to so-called ‘trash fish’ – taken from the bottom of the food chain, often juveniles – to feed the growing demand for fishmeal.
Even with these often-illegal and damaging fisheries practices, China cannot meet the burgeoning demand for fish protein to feed millions of captive farmed fish. So they’ve set their sights abroad – to places like Peru, where a unique ocean current creates the most productive anchovy fishery in the world. In seaside towns like Chimbote, the legacy of the industry lingers. We watched a scientist pull up a bucket of dark sludge – a mix of rotting fish bones, scales and blood that were discharged from fishmeal plants along the coast and dumped into the ocean. The oxygen-poor ocean floor has caused lingering “dead zones,” further risking the health of fisheries and the surrounding environment.
In West Africa, where a dozen foreign-owned fishmeal factories have opened in recent years, coastal communities are struggling as fish are redirected to these factories, endangering a way of life that locals have known for centuries. Fellows discovered a pipe from a Chinese-owned factory in Joal, Senegal, pouring toxic effluent back into the ocean. Our team collected samples and what we found was shocking: four heavy metals – Cadmium, Thallium, Vanadium and Selenium – all well above safety guidelines, with Selenium more than 2,000 times the dangerous level established by the CDC. Locals we spoke with reported a range of health problems, including skin, respiratory and gastric conditions – all consistent with a 2006 study of the health impact of fishmeal effluent exposure.
Students produced an in-depth multimedia website along with a 10-minute NBC Nightly Films video. Both were launched simultaneously in September 2019.