Onboard the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 were seven Chinese officers and a crew of four Gambians and thirty-five Senegalese. The Gambian team soon began grilling the ship’s captain, a short man named Qiu Shenzhong, who wore a shirt smeared with fish guts. Belowdecks, ten African crew members in yellow gloves and stained smocks stood shoulder to shoulder on either side of a conveyor belt, sorting bonga, mackerel, and whitefish into pans. Nearby, floor-to-ceiling rows of freezers were barely cold. Roaches scurried up the walls and across the floor, where some fish had been stepped on and squashed.
I spoke to one of the workers, who told me that his name was Lamin Jarju. Though no one could hear us above the deafening ca-thunk, ca-thunk of the machinery, he stepped away from the line and lowered his voice. The ship, he told me, had been fishing within the nine-mile zone until the Captain received a radioed warning from nearby ships that a policing effort was under way. When I asked Jarju why he was willing to reveal the ship’s violation, he said, “Follow me,” and led me up two levels to the roof of the wheel room, the Captain’s office. He showed me a large nest of crumpled newspapers, clothing, and blankets, where he said several crew members had been sleeping for the past several weeks, ever since the Captain hired more workers than the ship could accommodate. “They treat us like dogs,” Jarju said.
When I returned to the deck, an argument was escalating. A Gambian Navy lieutenant named Modou Jallow had discovered that the ship’s fishing logbook was blank. All captains are required to keep detailed accounts of where they go, how long they work, what gear they use, and what they catch. Jallow had issued an arrest order for the infraction and was yelling in Chinese. Captain Qiu was incandescent with rage. “No one keeps that!” he shouted back.
He was not wrong. Paperwork violations are common, especially on fishing boats along the coast of West Africa, where countries don’t always provide clear guidance about their rules. Captains tend to view logbooks as weapons of bribe-seeking bureaucrats or as tools of conservationists bent on closing fishing grounds. But scientists rely on proper records to determine fishing locations, depths, dates, gear descriptions, and “effort”—how long nets or lines are in the water relative to the quantity of fish they ensnare. Without such logs, it’s almost impossible to determine how quickly Gambia’s waters are being depleted.
Jallow ordered the ship back to port, and the argument moved from the upper deck down to the engine room, where Qiu claimed that he needed a few hours to fix a pipe—enough time, the Sam Simon crew suspected, for him to contact his bosses in China and ask them to call in a favor with high-level Gambian officials. Jallow, sensing a stalling tactic, smacked Qiu in the face. “You will make the fix in an hour!” Jallow shouted, grabbing the Captain by the throat. “And I will watch you do it.” Twenty minutes later, the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 was en route to shore.
Over the next several weeks, the Sam Simon inspected fourteen foreign ships—most of them Chinese and licensed to fish in Gambian waters—and arrested thirteen of them: all but one vessel was charged with lacking a proper logbook, and many were also fined for improper living conditions and for violating a law that Gambians must compose twenty per cent of certain shipping crews. On one Chinese-owned vessel, there weren’t enough boots for the deckhands, and a Senegalese worker had been pricked by a catfish whisker while wearing flip-flops. His swollen foot, oozing from the puncture wound, looked like a rotting eggplant. On another ship, eight workers slept in a space meant for two—a four-foot-tall steel-sided compartment directly above the engine room—which was dangerously hot. When high waves crashed on board, water flooded the makeshift cabin, where, the workers said, an electrical power strip had twice almost electrocuted them.
One rainy afternoon in Gambia’s capital city, Banjul, on the coast just north of Gunjur, I sought out Mustapha Manneh, a journalist and an environmental advocate. We met in the white tiled lobby of the Laico Atlantic hotel, decorated with fake potted plants and thick yellow drapes. Pachelbel’s Canon played in an endless loop in the background, accompanied by the plinking of water dripping from the ceiling into half a dozen buckets. Manneh had recently returned to Gambia after a year in Cyprus, where he had fled following the arrest of his father and brother for political activism against Yahya Jammeh, a brutal autocrat who was forced from power in 2017. Manneh, who told me that he hoped to become President one day, offered to take me to the Golden Lead factory.
The next morning, Manneh picked me up in a Toyota Corolla that he had rented for the difficult drive. Most of the road from the hotel to Golden Lead was dirt, which recent rain had turned into a treacherous slalom course of deep and almost impassable craters. The trip was about thirty miles, and took nearly two hours. Over the din of a missing muffler, he prepared me for the visit. “Cameras away,” he cautioned. “No saying anything critical about fish meal.” Just a week before my arrival, some of the same fishermen who had pulled up the plant’s wastewater pipe had apparently switched sides, attacking a team of European researchers who had tried to photograph the facility, pelting them with rocks and rotten fish. Some locals, though they opposed the dumping and resented the export of their fish, did not want foreign media publicizing Gambia’s problems.
We finally pulled up at the entrance of the plant, five hundred yards from the beach, behind a ten-foot wall of white corrugated metal. An acrid stench, like burning orange peels and rotting meat, assaulted us as soon as we got out of the car. Between the factory and the beach was a muddy patch of land, studded with palm trees and strewn with litter, where fishermen were repairing their boats in thatched-roof huts. The day’s catch lay on a set of folding tables, and women were cleaning the fish, smoking it, and drying it for sale. One of the women wore a hijab dripping wet from the surf. When I asked her about the catch, she gave me a dour look and tipped her basket toward me. It was barely half full. “We can’t compete,” she said. Pointing at the factory, she added, “It all goes there.”
The Golden Lead plant consists of several football-field-size concrete buildings, and sixteen silos where dried fish meal and chemicals are stored. Fish meal is relatively simple to make, and the process is highly mechanized. Video footage clandestinely taken by a worker inside Golden Lead reveals a cavernous space—dusty, hot, and dark. At a plant of its size, there are about a dozen men on the floor at any given time. Sweating profusely, several shovel shiny heaps of bonga into a steel funnel. A conveyor belt carries the fish into a vat, where a giant churning screw grinds it into a gooey paste before it enters a long cylindrical oven. Oil is extracted from the goo, and the remaining substance is pulverized into a fine powder and dumped onto the floor in the middle of the warehouse, accumulating into a huge golden mound. After the powder cools, workers shovel it into fifty-kilogram plastic sacks that are stacked from floor to ceiling. A shipping container holds four hundred sacks, and the men fill roughly twenty to forty containers a day.
Near the entrance of Golden Lead, a dozen or so young men hustled from shore to plant with baskets on their heads, brimming with bonga. Standing under several gangly palm trees, a forty-two-year-old fisherman named Ebrima Jallow explained that, although the local women pay more for a single basket than Golden Lead does, the plant buys in bulk and often pays for twenty baskets in advance—in cash. “The women can’t do that,” he said.
A few hundred yards away, Dawda Jack Jabang, the fifty-seven-year-old owner of the Treehouse Lodge, a deserted beachfront hotel and restaurant, stood in a side courtyard staring at the breaking waves. “I spent two good years working on this place,” he told me. “And overnight Golden Lead destroyed my life.” Hotel bookings had plummeted, and the plant’s odor at times was so noxious that patrons left his restaurant before finishing their meal.
Golden Lead has hurt more than helped the local economy, Jabang said. But what about all those young men hauling their baskets of fish to the factory? He waved the question away dismissively: “This is not the employment we want. They’re turning us into donkeys and monkeys.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the tenuousness of this economic landscape, as well as its corruption. Last May, many of the migrant workers on fishing crews returned home to celebrate Eid al-Fitr just as borders were closing down. With workers unable to return to Gambia, and with lockdown measures in place, Golden Lead and other plants temporarily suspended operation.
At least, they were supposed to. Manneh obtained secret recordings in which Bamba Banja, of the Ministry of Fisheries, discussed taking bribes in exchange for allowing factories to operate during the lockdown. In October, Banja took a leave of absence after an investigation found that, between 2018 and 2020, he had accepted ten thousand dollars from Chinese fishermen and companies, including Golden Lead. He declined to comment for this article. The plants are now legally operating again, but, with the price of gas rising, fishermen are spending less and less time on the water. They continue to take cash advances from the fish-meal plants, and the fewer fish they bring in, the more mired in debt they become.