Fishing for fins

On the edge of Madagascar’s western city of Morondava, tucked between the beach and the mangroves, is a strip of hotels, restaurants and bars, many teeming with tourists and sex workers. A passerby might not realize that beyond this strip, in the corner of the city, some of the world’s most hard-core fishermen live in simple houses built on the sand. Many of them are Vezo, a cultural group that lives off the sea. The Vezo people originally lived further south, but many have now migrated to Morondava and islands further north in search of better catch, or at least come this way now during certain seasons.

Lebita Rakotondrainy is the de facto leader of the shark fishers in this corner of the city. He and his men go out dozens of kilometers in outrigger canoes with canvas sails, walking around the boats’ rims like gymnasts, even in heavy seas. They lay double nets, the inner one to trap fish that will in turn attract sharks, the outer one more than 100 meters (328 feet) deep and 300 meters long. They still occasionally catch sharks that weigh 80 kilograms (176 pounds), pulling them up by hand.

Lebita Rakotondrainy, a shark fisher and fin collector in Morondava on Madagascar’s west coast, stands next to his nets and supplies. Shark-fishing nets are too expensive for many small-scale fishers. Until 2004, a German development agency distributed them and encouraged Malagasy fishers to target sharks, but it no longer does so due to conservation concerns. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

Bottom-dwelling guitarfish (family Rhinobatidae) are the most valuable, with one mature guitarfish worth about 300,000 ariary (roughly $80) in Morondava. Not surprisingly, much of the trade is just in the fins, which vary in value depending on size and fibrousness. Some can sell locally for more than 200,000 ariary ($53) per kilogram, or about $24 per pound.

After arriving home, Rakotondrainy cuts up the sharks, separates the fins and puts the meat in a vat of heavily salted water to pickle it; it will either be eaten locally, sold in another of Madagascar’s cities, or exported to the nearby Comoros, where shark meat is popular. Sharks are also valuable for their liver oil.

Shark meat pickles in a tub of heavily salted water in the fishing village of Andavadoaka, in Madagascar’s southwest. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

In addition to fishing, Rakotondrainy works as a shark-fin collector or middleman between small-scale fishers and Chinese export companies based in Madagascar’s cities. He named Societé Océan, Sea Reine and Societé Yang Huagen as three of the shark-fin trading companies that he knew about in Madagascar.

The companies are difficult to scrutinize as they seem to have no websites or public-facing communications. There’s no evidence that companies such as these are doing anything illegal; they might have licenses to export fins, a requirement for all seafood leaving Madagascar commercially.

Societé Océan and Sea Reine denied Mongabay access to their facilities, located respectively in Toliara and near Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. In both cases, staff indicated an inability to answer questions in any language other than Chinese. At Mongabay’s request, a Chinese journalist returned to Sea Reine’s unmarked building. A manager told her that the shark-fin trade had slowed in recent years because the quality of fins in Madagascar had declined and customs officials in China were making it harder to import the fins.

Madagascar’s shark-fin trade isn’t just run through seafood processing facilities. Undercover investigative work filmed by Vice in late 2014 featured a Chinese dealer operating out of a seemingly ordinary house in Antananarivo — one filled with shark fins, some of which the dealer said were from great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).

Madagascar’s Fisheries Surveillance Center (CSP by its French initials), a branch of the fisheries ministry, did not respond to questions for this article about how much of the shark-fin trade was legal and whether the center’s remit included monitoring facilities that handle shark fins.

Sea Reine, a Chinese-owned export company in Madagascar, has an unmarked processing facility near the country’s main airport in the capital, Antananarivo. The company exports sea cucumbers and shark fins, but a manager said that the shark-fin trade has slowed due to a lack of high-quality fins in Madagascar and customs restrictions in China. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

Governance issues near and far

Sharks populations are declining for most species for which reliable data exist. Across the world, roughly 100 million sharks were killed per year between 2000 and 2010, an unsustainable rate according to a 2013 study in Marine Policy.

In theory, some shark species have international legal protection — that is, trading them to or from any country, including Madagascar, is restricted — due to multilateral and regional agreements. Madagascar is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Several shark species found in Madagascar’s waters have been added to CITES Appendix II in the last decade, which means that they can’t be exported without permits that establish their catch as legal and non-detrimental to the survival of the species.

However, it’s difficult for customs officials to differentiate between shark fins, and in practice, Madagascar has not strictly enforced the CITES restrictions on shark exports. The new national plan pledges to honor the restrictions, and an official from the fisheries ministry told Mongabay that shipments of shark fins will now require permits from the country’s CITES authorities.

Juvenile scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) for sale at the market in Morondava. The saleswoman offered four of them to a reporter for 5,000 ariary, less than $1.50. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

Yet some experts say trade restrictions have minimal impact on life at sea; by way of rules, they’re too little, too late. “Usually, by the time a shark has been pulled up, it’s dead,” Garth Cripps, a conservationist, scientist and photographer based in southwestern Madagascar, told Mongabay. “A trade restriction on certain species isn’t going to change that.”

Madagascar also works to manage shark fisheries as part of its membership in the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), an intergovernmental group affiliated with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But good management is difficult without good data, and shark populations in the Indian Ocean are “highly uncertain” due to lack of data, IOTC documents say.

The data problem stalled progress at the IOTC’s latest annual conference on bycatch, in September. “The Working Party on Ecosystems and Bycatch was a somewhat frustrating experience as we were scheduled to look at several shark species, but ultimately were unable to conclude much due to lack of data,” Paul de Bruyn, the IOTC’s science manager, told Mongabay in an email. “[A]t present we still work under a climate of little to no data on key shark species.”

Fishy fleets

Perhaps the largest unknown is the level of impact that foreign industrial fishing fleets are having on shark populations. Fleets from Asia and Europe have been plying Madagascar’s waters for decades in search of tuna and related species such as swordfish. In recent years, roughly 100 longliners, a few dozen purse seiners, and a few dozen shrimp trawlers have been working in Madagascar’s waters — a count that includes only licensed vessels.

Longlining fleets spell particular trouble for shark populations. One vessel can cast hundreds of lines a day, each bearing thousands of hooks. And sharks are not just bycatch; they have become a target of some longliners in the Indian Ocean. Spanish vessels, for example, have used wire leaders, designed to withstand very sharp teeth, to target blue sharks (Prionace glauca), according to a 2013 European Union report.

Few sharks survive being hooked or netted, whether intentionally or not. They often suffocate because they aren’t moving and don’t have water flowing over their gills. Live or dead, some sharks are “finned” on board and their bodies immediately dumped back into the water — a practice banned by the IOTC, but still common.

Sharks are particularly vulnerable to population decline and extinction because they are slow to mature and reproduce. Many are apex predators that maintain ecosystem balance by removing weak prey species and influencing their feeding strategies and movement patterns. Removing sharks can cause a cascade of environmental problems, including damage to coral reefs.

Madagascar’s small-scale fishers, like Rakotondrainy and his crews, put significant pressure on shark populations, but the industrial take might be even larger. The two sides are in a sort of race for marine resources, and on the rare occasions when they meet, it’s not always friendly. Rakotondrainy said that when local fishers approach longliners, far out at sea, asking for bycatch or cigarettes, they are often shooed away. “They’ll say ‘out, out, out,’ in English,” he said.

Théodore, a shark fisher in the village of Andavadoaka, tends his lines. He’s one of only a handful of local people still in the trade. After decades of heavy exploitation by both small-scale and commercial fishers, catching sizable sharks is now rare. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

The authors of a 2011 Marine Policy paper estimated that foreign vessels were taking 4,300 metric tons of shark out of Madagascar’s waters every year, compared with 3,800 metric tons taken by small-scale fishers. Mongabay was unable to obtain much government data, which varies across ministerial departments and is widely regarded as incomplete, with figures much lower than those found in the Marine Policy paper.

The most recent fisheries deal with the European Union, signed in December 2014, stipulated that the nearly 100 European vessels allowed into Madagascar’s waters could only catch a total of 250 metric tons of shark bycatch — less than 25 tons per ship. That deal expired at the end of 2018 and is still being renegotiated. The EU is asking for a larger shark quota, according to WWF’s Ratsifandrihamanana, who is following the negotiations closely.

Tracking catch per vessel is difficult, especially for Asian fleets, which sign deals with Madagascar’s fisheries ministry that are kept confidential. This past tuna season, Japanese and South Korean longliners worked the waters off Madagascar’s west coast. There’s no public record of how many sharks they caught or even how many they were allowed to catch. Fisheries ministry officials indicated to Mongabay that these vessels were licensed to work in Madagascar’s waters, but did not respond to a request to share the licensing agreements.

Madagascar’s government has limited ability to control its waters. The CSP has only two boats to monitor the country’s 1.2-million-square-kilometer (463,300-square-mile) exclusive economic zone. And when inspections do take place, it can be difficult to determine if the catch is illegal; ship captains can claim they caught it in another country’s zone, as the Vice documentary showed.

Though foreign fleets might in some cases pay a premium for allowable shark catch or bycatch, Malagasy people see little direct benefit from industrial shark fishing, as the catch doesn’t land in Madagascar for consumption or local processing. Shark fins and intact bodies are often transferred to ships headed to Asia.

Salted shark meat on sale at the market in the city of Morondava. One slice costs 500 ariary, about 13 U.S. cents. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

What’s next

It’s too early to know whether the new national shark-and-ray plan will stop the overexploitation of Madagascar’s sharks. Some observers worry that sharks may get lost in the shuffle with the environment ministry currently focused on reforestation efforts. And the plan still requires an “interministerial” decree and possibly ratification by parliament in order to become official policy. The draft plan calls for roughly $750,000 in financing over 5 years. The environment ministry told Mongabay that the money could come from external or internal sources, but did not provide more details.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a U.S.-based conservation group, is pushing the new plan. The group has worked on shark conservation in Madagascar for many years and helped start the first shark sanctuary at Antongil Bay in northeastern Madagascar in 2014. (The sanctuary designation is only semi-official, as the bay has not been granted protected status at the national level.)

WCS is one of several NGOs that facilitate marine protected areas and marine areas managed by local communities in Madagascar. Conservationists are hopeful that these efforts, coupled with better national policy and closer monitoring of industrial fishing, could turn the tide for shark populations. Whether future generations of Malagasy kids will have to look out when playing in the water remains to be seen.

A Vezo boy in Arovana in southwestern Madagascar, circa 2005. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Banner image: Shark teeth in the village of Andavadoaka in southwestern Madagascar. Image by Edward Carver for Mongabay.

Additional reporting by Lulu Ning Hui.


Worm, B., Davis, B., Kettemer, L., Ward-Paige, C. A., Chapman, D., Heithaus, M. R., … Gruber, S. H. (2013). Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy40, 194-204. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2012.12.034

Le Manach, F., Gough, C., Harris, A., Humber, F., Harper, S., & Zeller, D. (2012). Unreported fishing, hungry people and political turmoil: The recipe for a food security crisis in Madagascar? Marine Policy36(1), 218-225. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2011.05.007

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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