In Pictures
In Pictures: The rise of shark fishing off the Congolese coast
Artisanal fishers have focused more on shark fishing off the coast of the Republic of the Congo in recent years.
A fisherman struggles to push a wheelbarrow full of sharks that have just been dropped off a pirogue on the beach of Songolo, the fishing district of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of the Congo. Many artisanal fishing crews on the Congolese coast specialise in shark fishing [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
By Marco Simoncelli
22 Nov 2021
Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo – With the rise of industrial fishing off the Congolese coast, artisanal fishing crews have increasingly focused on shark fishing to make a living.
Shark fishing is not new, reportedly shark fishing crews went out on narrow, canoe-like pirogues as far back as the 1980s but the phenomenon has increased steadily in the past two decades, and activists warn the practice is becoming unsustainable.
Other factors have driven this boom, including the construction of offshore oil infrastructure that has reduced the areas where artisanal crews can fish just as more industrial fishing meant greater competition.
And the continuing demand for shark fins in parts of Asia makes shark fishing lucrative.
The artisanal shark fishers go far out to sea, throwing nets overboard just before sunset and drawing the sharks in with bait and blood during the night.
On most days, hundreds of sharks are dumped along the beach of Songolo in the fishing district of Pointe-Noire, where they are sold on the spot. Many are hammerhead, bigeye thresher, silky, and mako sharks – all endangered species.
In addition, many of the sharks being caught are not fully grown, according to Jean-Michel Dziengue, a Congolese activist at the environmental NGO Bouée Couronne, who says many are juvenile or small.
“The trend affects the entire fish resource. In markets, fish are getting smaller and smaller. It’s a sign that people are fishing in spawning areas,” he said.
According to a 2017 survey by the NGO Traffic, 95 percent of the sharks caught in the Republic of the Congo (1,767 tonnes) came from artisanal fishermen – accounting for one-third of their annual catch.
Dozens of shark species are caught in the country, including seven listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Dziengue feels the fishers’ move towards shark fishing can be attributed to the uncontrolled expansion of industrial fishing.
“First, fishing areas were reduced by two-thirds by offshore oil exploitation. Then foreign industrial vessels increased particularly after 2005 when they jumped from 24 to more than 70 in just a few years, and starting fishing without limits even in spawning areas. The artisanal fishermen were slowly pushed into a corner,” he said.
According to Traffic, in a maritime area where a maximum of 30 licences should be issued to industrial vessels, as many as 110 vessels were sailing in 2018. This number has fallen to about 80 vessels, according to Congolese authorities.
Dziengue said authorities lack the means to enforce laws to prevent overfishing by industrial trawlers. “The authorities have only one patrol boat for the entire coast,” he added.
According to a recent study published by Current Biology, one-third of the world’s shark and ray species are at risk of extinction due to overfishing and the number of species of sharks and rays facing “global extinction crisis” doubled in a decade.
Senegalese shark biologist Mika Samba Diop told Al Jazeera sharks were beginning to disappear from African seas in which they were previously common.
“Sharks are ‘the gendarmes’ of the marine ecosystem balance, they are long-lived but have weak fecundity. If they are fished intensively, severe damage is generated,” he said.
Guylaine lifts a large silky shark just bought at auction in the big 'Marché du Oui' in Pointe-Noire. Shark meat is appreciated by the Congolese and has always been eaten in the taverns of the city's suburbs and also in those of the capital, Brazzaville. Guylaine has been working in the fish trade for years, but says he is unaware that the silky shark is an endangered species. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
Every day on Songolo beach, pirogue traders specialising in shark fishing unload hundreds of sharks of different species and sizes. Immediately, dozens of buyers gather to bid for the best ones. In the high season, each pirogue can catch up to a thousand sharks. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
A fishing directorate agent weighs a small shark before the start of an auction between fishmongers on Songolo beach in Pointe-Noire. Although the Republic of the Congo has signed several international conventions on fish conservation, the industry remains unregulated. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
Alani Milagnawoe, 42, is the captain of a Congolese shark fishing pirogue. He came to Congo from Benin 20 years ago in search of better opportunities. Like many others, he initially caught sharks accidentally with the rest of his catch. Then he began to specialise in shark fishing because he says it is the only catch profitable enough for him to survive. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
Some crew members led by Alani set their nets on the high seas before sunset. During the night, after several hours of waiting trying to attract predators with live bait and blood, they will draw up the nets hoping to catch sharks. A fishing trip can last several days and the crew may move to various areas to make multiple attempts. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
Using ropes, wooden beams and steel poles, Alani's crew drags a large pirogue onto the beach. Artisanal fishing in Africa is a risky and exhausting profession. These fishermen navigate the high seas with simple tools and few safety measures. Because of oil platforms and industrial fishing boats, they are forced to sail further and further offshore. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
Many of the sharks dumped on Songolo beach are juveniles. This is a sign that the shark population is being overfished. According to investigations by the NGO Traffic, over 10,000 tonnes of scalloped hammerhead shark, a seriously endangered species, were caught in the country between 2007 and 2017. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
At the 'Marché Foire' in Pointe-Noire, sharks are sold dried for domestic consumption. 'We see smaller and smaller fish in the markets. It's alarming,' says Congolese environmental activist, Jean-Michel Dziengue. He says fishermen are targeting sharks 'mainly because of the business that can be done due to the value of their fins'. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
In the back of a market in Pointe-Noire, a man shows off fins that have just been severed from large sharks. The illegal trafficking of fins to Asian markets is well structured. No fin exports appear in Congo national fisheries and customs data, although in Hong Kong, the world's most important market for this type of product, 131,594 kg of fins from Congo-Brazzaville were recorded between 2005 and 2019, according to a report by Traffic. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
The Marché du Oui on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire is one of the main retail spots for fish and also sharks. Foreign, industrial fishing companies operating in Congo come here with containers to sell a portion of their catch wholesale. Their presence has further contributed to the rising price of fish that used to come exclusively from artisanal fisheries. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
The fishing community grew considerably in recent decades, while the construction of the numerous oil platforms offshore from Pointe-Noire reduced the artisanal fishing area by two-thirds. Currently, more than 700 artisanal fishing pirogues operate with crews composed of many fishermen who arrived from other West African countries such as Benin, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
Giselle, 38, smokes bongo fish in the Songolo neighbourhood and then sells it at the market. Since the fish has become rarer, her job and that of many other women in the community involved in fish processing is at risk. 'Today I can only start a maximum of two fireplaces for smoking; I used to run more than double in the past. It was a lot of work.' [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
The Songolo neighbourhood is among the poorest in Pointe-Noire. The living conditions of the fishing community are difficult. There are no sewers, no hospitals and no schools. Despite the fact that in recent decades the city has become the economic capital of the country, thanks to the huge oil fields offshore, most of the population does not benefit from this development. [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
Senegalese biologist Mika Samba Diop is among the few African experts involved in studying shark fishing on the Atlantic coast. 'We know that in West Africa the population is in dramatic decline, but we have no data on what is happening in Central Africa because no one is doing research. I fear the worst for the ecosystem there as well.' [Marco Simoncelli/Al Jazeera]
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