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Landed by the thousands: Overfished Congo waters put endangered sharks at risk

  • More than 100 commercial trawlers and about 700 smaller boats of the Republic of Congo’s artisanal fleet are putting intense pressure on 42 shark and ray species, according to a new survey by TRAFFIC, an NGO that tracks the global wildlife trade. All are on the IUCN red list.
  • The 150-mile Congo coast makes up a tiny part of Africa’s shoreline, but overfishing is taking a heavy toll. One example: Ten thousand metric tons of hammerheads were reported caught in Congo from 2007 through 2017 — the equivalent weight of 10,000 small cars.
  • Republic of Congo is a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but not one CITES-listed shark species is on the country’s endangered species list. A new law aimed at meeting international commitments has been in the works since 2018, but has not been ratified by the Parliament.
  • A new international market incentivized shark fishing around 2000, with the arrival of Chinese companies in Congo. The fins are exported illegally to Asia for shark fin soup, but authorities say they have no idea how the shark fins are being smuggled out of the country. Without knowledge of export routes, little can be done to prevent the illegal trade.
Local residents and sellers barter over the latest shark catch. Image courtesy of Longshot productions / TRAFFIC.

In a video clip, seven fishermen climb into a wooden “Popo” boat that’s beached on the Republic of the Congo’s sandy shoreline. They start up the motor of the 40-foot, limo-length motorized canoe and head out into the Atlantic. The men aboard the weathered craft — its blue paint chipped and faded by years of salt and sun — could be out for a week.

When they reach deep waters, the fishermen lay their rope nets. In the dark, they pull them up and the cameraman captures footage of four skinny young scalloped hammerheads wriggling on deck, each perhaps as long as a man’s arm.

While small-scale “artisanal” fishermen say they target adult sharks, regulation net sizes ignore the hammerhead’s singular anatomy: Their head is so wide that juveniles like these are regularly caught. With low reproduction rates, this further threatens a critically endangered species.

Other footage pans over rows of dead sharks — of all species and sizes — laid out side-by-side on the beach.

An open concrete-floored area is used to handle and sell sharks domestically. Image courtesy of Longshot productions / TRAFFIC.

The footage is part of a recent report on the Congolese shark trade by TRAFFIC, a UK-based nonprofit that monitors the wildlife trade. Their survey found that extreme pressure is being put on sharks by about 700 Popo boats and smaller, three-person “Vili,” boats that compete with 110 commercial trawlers in national waters.

These big industrial vessels regularly encroach on restricted, artisanal fishing areas that lay within six nautical miles of the shore. About two-thirds are Chinese ships. In contrast, neighboring Angola, allows just 50 industrial boats along its 994 miles of coast. Sustainable fishing on the Congolese coast would allow for just 30 large trawlers.

Together, small and large operations are overfishing the country’s 150-mile sliver of coastline, landing more than 4 million pounds of shark in 2017. And while shark fishing is technically legal in Congo, TRAFFIC investigators found that the fins are being illegally smuggled to Asia. The study was part of the organization’s larger Reducing Trade Threats to Africa (ReTTA) Program, which surveys wild species and ecosystems.

“Sharks are heavily overexploited,” said Constant Momballa Mbun, the report’s author. Between 100 and 400 sharks and rays are landed in a single day at Pointe-Noire alone, a prime Congo market area, though numbers are underreported, Mbun said. Ten thousand metric tons of hammerheads were reported caught in Congo from 2007 through 2017 — the equivalent weight of 10,000 small cars. Endangered rays are also being harvested in large numbers.

Caught sharks are offloaded onto the beach before being prepared for sale. Meat is sold locally, while fins are smuggled out of the country, often headed for China. Image courtesy of Longshot productions / TRAFFIC.

Many of the 42 shark and ray species caught in Congo are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. At least 15, including hammerheads, manta rays, mako and thresher sharks, require export permits under a treaty signed by 183 nations, the  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Although the Congo is a signatory, its regulations are not meeting the nation’s commitment: Not one CITES-listed shark species is on the country’s own endangered species list. A new law that’s meant to align with international commitments has been in the works since 2018, but it has not been ratified by the Parliament.

A generation ago, “the beach was full of sharks, from one end to the other, said Camilla Floros, who leads TRAFFIC’s ReTTA program. “That’s no longer the case.” This stretch of ocean is emptying of all fish species — and only certain areas can be legally fished. Much of the artisanal fishing area is off-limits, with Conkouati-Douli National Park protecting part of the coast, and much of the rest devoted to oil drilling. As a result, fishermen are now venturing many miles out to sea — targeting sharks.

“There’s a whole industry around sharks,” said Jean-Michel Dziengue, a program officer with the maritime conservation nonprofit Association La Boulée Couronne. “But we are worried about the amount of pressure this puts on the resource.”

Fishermen work on their nets; they brave all times of day and night, and all kinds of weather seeking their catch. Image courtesy of Longshot productions / TRAFFIC.

Up to 100 million sharks are pulled from the world’s oceans each year. Most die for their fins, which are cut off on deck, their bodies dumped overboard. That’s not the case in the Congo, where sharks are landed whole; the meat is an important, affordable local source of protein.

A new international market incentivized shark fishing around 2000, with the arrival of Chinese companies that came to Congo to build railways and other infrastructure. The fins, which are exported illegally to Asia for shark fin soup, fetch at least five times the price of fillets: meat brings about 50 cents per pound in Congo, while fins are sold for about $5/pound. Most of the profits don’t go to the fishermen.

Hong Kong logged 290,000 pounds of dried shark fin imports from the Congo between 2005 and 2019. But in the Congo, “There is no record” of that harvest, said TRAFFIC’s Mbun. Without CITES permits, these hidden exports of endangered species are illegal.

Global trade routes are unknown — except to the smugglers. Learning how fins are leaving the country is key to law enforcement, says Floros, who noted that “we need to find the loopholes.”

Are industrial trawlers bound for Asia not reporting shark catches, or are they receiving “trans-shipments” of sharks and/or fins from local boats? Congo isn’t alone in trafficking fins; there are similar serious problems all along African coastlines, Floros added.

A local woman rubs salt onto shark meat in preparation for curing in the sun. Image by Constant Momballa courtesy of TRAFFIC.

The country has no national plan in place to manage the situation in a sustainable way or to curb the illegal trade.

The good news is that the Congolese are keen to engage, Floros said. TRAFFIC is working with the government to establish a management plan that allows for sustainable harvest and prevents unregulated trade in CITES-listed species. When interviewed on camera, Benoît Claude Atsango, the director general of Fisheries and Aquaculture, said, “We don’t really have any information or statistics on sharks.” In a written statement, he welcomed the new TRAFFIC analysis as a step towards developing a National Plan of Action for Sharks.

To draft a strong plan, stakeholders will need to assess fish stocks, fishing gear and the numbers of permitted commercial trawlers; identify and protect critical habitat and breeding grounds; cut back on the 365-day-per-year fishing calendar; and establish both a satellite system to monitor boats and a means to enforce regulations.

The sun sets over Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo, as fishermen prepare to set off in search of sharks. Image courtesy of Longshot productions / TRAFFIC.

Roger Xavier Okolam, a customs department director, said his office needs more information to be able to fight against the illegal exportation of protected species.

“It’s a complicated triangle,” Floros said, trying to balance feeding people and sustaining artisanal fishermen’s livelihoods with the need to protect sharks and other fish – and prevent a future where the ocean is emptied of life. Careful management will protect both sharks and Congo’s coastal livelihoods.

As top predators that have survived 400 million years of evolution, sharks play an important role, keeping ecosystems in balance. “Disrupting that balance can cause breakdowns in the food web, impacting all ocean life. We need healthy shark populations for healthy oceans,” Floros said.

Banner image: Fishermen unload their catch on the beach from one of the artisanal “Popo” boats. Image courtesy of Longshot productions / TRAFFIC.

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