Overfishing drives fishers to take sharks
Congolese artisanal fishers are turning towards shark fishing because of the increased scarcity of other stocks, overfished by industrial fisheries.
With a coastline just 169km long, an active fleet of more than 110 industrial vessels and close to 700 artisanal boats far exceeds the national Exclusive Economic Zone’s (EEZ) carrying capacity estimated at 30 industrial vessels.
“Besides overexploitation, artisanal fishers consider industrial Chinese trawlers their biggest threat, which illegally operate in artisanal fishing zones and destroy their gear as well,” said a new report, released by Traffic (wildlife trade monitoring network) this week, called: “Rapid Assessment of the Artisanal Shark Trade in the Republic of the Congo”.
The huge number of petroleum platforms is also a major constraint to artisanal fisheries reducing the artisanal fishing zone by two thirds and polluting coastal waters.
The report notes how the Republic of Congo was the fourth largest catcher of hammerheads globally between 2000 and 2017 and has a thriving artisanal fishing sector, landing at least 15 sharks and rays species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
Illegal fishing by industrial trawlers in zones reserved for artisanal fisheries “builds a conflictual and unhealthy relationship” between the two fisheries.
“Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and under-reported catches, combined with increasing pressures from an excessive industrial fleet and sustained harvest of sharks, including juveniles, is reason for concern.”
The combination of these risk factors in a context of inadequate species fisheries monitoring and insufficient enforcement capacities by government authorities, calls for precautionary management of the shark populations in the Congo that International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Cites have listed as threatened by overexploitation and trade, it said.
In Pointe-Noire, artisanal shark fishing and associated trade is an important economic activity carried out mainly by settled West African communities, fuelled by the demand for shark fins in East and Southeast Asia “through a local oligopsony of fin traders and a network of middlemen.
It is commonly acknowledged at the Pointe-Noire artisanal fish market that all the fins are exported to China, although they are most likely going to Hong Kong, which recorded total imports of 131 594kg of shark fins from the Congo between 2005 and 2019.
“However, the Cites trade database contains no records of trade in any shark or ray products from the Congo. And none of these species is included in the corresponding class of wildlife whose exploitation is regulated by national legislation. This suggests that fins from Cites-listed species are probably being exported without the required Cites permits.”
The drive for shark fishing is reinforced by the competition for other fish stocks by a relatively large fleet of industrial trawlers, which makes shark fishing a practical alternative for small-scale Congolese fishers who traditionally take small quantities of sharks and rays for subsistence, said the report.
The importance of sharks in the conservation of marine ecosystems and as a source of animal protein to Congolese communities is undeniable.
“Processed shark meat is an affordable alternative fish supply for the country, which has one of the highest per capita fish consumption rates among Sub-Saharan African countries.”
Of the 1 868 701kg of shark catch reported in 2017, 95% (1 766 589kg) was by artisanal fisheries, representing 32% of the total artisanal fish catch. The meat is processed and sold in the local markets for domestic consumption, with demand reducing any incentive for the wasteful practice of on-board shark finning.
The report details how shark stocks are susceptible to overexploitation from the permanently open seas, demand-based quotas and IUU fishing.
“This is compounded by the lack of adequate historical and scientific data on available shark stocks, population viability, and shark fishing and trade trends. There is also no species management plan or system to assess the impact of the fisheries in Pointe-Noire on the viability of the shark species and the sector.”
The artisanal fishing community limits the number of fishing expeditions by organising themselves into batches of boats allowed to fish during different months of the year.
“Sharks have become an essential source of sustenance and income for local people whose livelihoods and well-being are under extreme threat if shark populations collapse,” said the report’s author, Constant Momballa.
Overcapacity and illegal fishing threaten the very survival of sharks like the Scalloped Hammerhead, with juveniles regularly landed in Pointe-Noire while at a global level the , which the IUCN Red List assesses to be critically endangered, at extreme risk of extinction, she said.