(First published in Norwegian 07 Dec 2006)
By Erik Hagen
Tonnes of nutritious fish oil are imported to Norway every year and end up as tablets in Norwegian health food stores. Most of it stems from South America, but a considerable amount also originates from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Thus, when you pick a bottle of omega-3 from the store shelf, you may consequently be supporting Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. The fish-oil industry provides jobs primarily to Moroccan settlers.
When Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony in 1975, the majority of the inhabitants escaped to refugee camps in Algeria. There they remain, 31 years later. In the meanwhile, Morocco has settled several hundreds of thousands of civilian Moroccans in the occupied area. Many of the settlers have obtained work in the lucrative fish industry. Some of them work to fill Norwegian health food stores with omega-3.
The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not recognize Morocco’s annexation of the area and “discourages all economic cooperation with Western Sahara, including import”. But that does not stop Norway’s commercial sector. Contrary to the Ministry’s request, it is Norwegians who are leading the fish oil production in Western Sahara and distributing it in the Norwegian market.
After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during the previous administration, intensified its policies for trade and products from Western Sahara, the import appears to have been reduced to half. It has also become difficult to obtain clear answers from those involved in commerce with products from the occupied area.
Norwatch has been in contact with a series of participants in this industry. The leading exporter does not know who in Norway is importing. And the one who appears to be the leading Norwegian importer claims he does not know whether the Moroccan fish oil he receives actually originates from Western Sahara.
KB Fish is one of the oldest fish processing companies in the region, a Moroccan-owned company with a Norwegian manager, Harald Wiedswang. The Norwegian has lived in the South Moroccan tourist city of Agadir for several years, and last year he had to explain his involvement in Western Sahara on the Norwegian TV program “Brennpunkt”. The program took as its point of departure, among other things, the Norwegian fish-oil production in Western Sahara.
During a period towards end of the 1990s KB Fish had fishing licences for the waters off the coast of the occupied area. They have now specialized in production of fish oil and fishmeal. According to Wiedswang, his company buys fish waste from the various fishing industries in El Aaiun, the capital of Western Sahara, and in Dakhla further to the south. Then they cook the waste into nutritious oil.
Norwatch has tried to ascertain who imports the fish oil from Western Sahara that without doubt reaches Norway. The large exporter Harald Wiedswang says he does not know who is importing.
“Let us say that perhaps 20 000 tonnes fish oil are exported yearly to Norway from El Aaiun, but exactly who imports it, that I am not sure of”, Wiedswang told Norwatch on the phone from Agadir.
Wiedswang has also helped establish eight other companies in the occupied region. In addition, he is the manager of the company Sovapec in South Morocco, a company with the same Moroccan owners as KB Fish.
According to Statistics Norway, the import of fish oil from Morocco and Western Sahara reached a peak in 2004. The sum imported for was then all of 121 million kroners. In 2006 the import will be about half of that. It is uncertain how much of this originates from Morocco and how much from Western Sahara. Most of it probably stems from KB Fish, which has refineries on both sides of the border.
Even though Wiedswang has lived in Morocco for years, he still maintains close contacts in Norway. Among other things, he is partner with Arne Alnæs from the northwest region of Norway. According to the official Norwegian company register, in 2002 they started the company Hydral in Kristiansund, which produces fish oil from the waste from Norwegian salmon production. In addition to his involvement in Hydral, Wiedswang’s partner Alnæs is managing director in the Kristiansund-based fish-oil company GC Rieber Oils AS. He is the recipient of large amounts of Wiedswang’s oil.
Alnæs has confirmed to Norwatch that he has bought fish oil from the KB Fish plant in Western Sahara over the past few years – at the time when GC Rieber Oils was called Alnæs Marine Oils AS. This is confirmed by several sources. A bottle of fish-oil capsules that Norwatch obtained in Western Sahara (see photo) carries the importer’s name.
But it is not easy to get a definite answer to whether GC Rieber Oils has continued to import fish oil produced at plants in Western Sahara up until today. The company emphasizes that it is trying to “shift the production northward” and that most of the import today comes from Morocco. Alnæs explains that the shift has occurred after discussions with Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We have informed our producers in the region that we prefer production at plants in Tan Tan and Agadir [in Morocco, ed.]. It does happen that it is shipped from the northernmost harbour in what you call Western Sahara, but that is for practical purposes only”, Alnæs told Norwatch.
“As far as we know, the production takes place in Morocco.”
On those occasions when the Norwegian importer has shipped fish oil from a harbour in Western Sahara it has been, according to Alnæs, because the harbour conditions in South Morocco have been bad, usually because of a combination of bad weather and ebb tide.
“The oil is stored in El Aaiun while waiting to be shipped out. I have no further knowledge of details beyond that”, Alnæs claimed.
The leading exporter of fish oil from Morocco and Western Sahara, KB Fish, also has no further information about who in Norway imports its fish oil. And the exporter’s partner, GC Rieber, can not guarantee that the import does not occur by way of Western Sahara.
Norwatch has called several of the big participants in the Norwegian omega-3 market, but it has not been possible to ascertain in what kind of products the Western Saharan fish oil ends up. The greater part is most probably used in health food products, whereas some may have been used in pharmaceuticals or animal food. One of the reasons it is difficult to ascertain the country of origin is that many products contain a mixture of fish oil from several different countries. Most of the fish oil on the Norwegian market stems from plants in Chile and Peru.
Sidi Omar, a representative of Front Polisario, Western Sahara’s resistance movement, believes that the Norwegian participation in the fish-oil industry is unfortunate.
“To invest in this area without consulting the Sahrawi population or its legitimate representatives is illegal”, Omar told Norwatch on the phone from London.
“The longer the international companies give work to the Moroccan settlers in the occupied areas of Western Sahara, the more complicated it will be to resolve the conflict”, Omar explained.
He encourages importers to find other suppliers until the conflict has been resolved.