Shark fishermen in Congo-Brazzaville claim they are catching less prises and an increasing number of young fish, a sign that stocks are under pressure.
This fishery is largely unregulated, in violation of a series of international recommendations, and environmental groups are starting to sound the alarm bells.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it was primarily driven by the growing demand for shark fins from Asia, where shark fin soup was a popular dish.
But in recent years, depletion of other staple fish stocks by foreign industrial trawlers has led Congo’s fishermen and coastal communities to increasingly depend on shark meat as a source of food.
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In the port city of Pointe-Noire, an assessment carried out in 2019 by the wildlife monitoring group Traffic showed that these local, or artisanal, fishermen often land 400 to 1,000 sharks and rays, which are closely related to sharks, per day in high season.
But fishermen say this represents a substantial drop from the industry’s heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s.
They also claim that they capture fewer large breeders and that their catch is increasingly dominated by young sharks, a sign that this practice is becoming unsustainable.
“In the past, a single boat could catch up to 100 sharks a day,” says Alain Pangou, a local captain who has been fishing sharks for nearly 20 years. “But today, it’s more complicated.”
Conflicts and climate change now pose additional threats to this already precarious sector.
These two phenomena are pushing ever greater numbers of people to the coast, swelling the number of artisanal fishermen and putting the shark populations of Congo under increasing pressure.
Fishermen have to move away from the mainland, for longer periods and into deeper waters to catch, which puts them at increasing risk.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” says Mr. Pangou. “What choice do you have?
The situation of fishermen has been worsened by the growing exclusion zone around the country’s oil rigs, which provide much of Congo’s wealth, which in recent years has reduced the size of the artisanal fishing zone by nearly two. third.
Currently, the first 11 kilometers (seven miles) of the Pointe-Noire coast, considered the main shark breeding areas, are supposed to be exclusively reserved for artisanal fishing.
But according to Jean-Michel Dziengue, observer of local fisheries, illegal encroachments by industrial trawlers are commonplace.
Mr. Dziengue regularly receives videos shot by fishermen on their phones showing such violations, which he then passes on to officials as evidence.
“But even when we catch them, they rarely get punished,” he says.
The precariousness of shark fishing in Congo, and more broadly of artisanal fishing, has economic implications not only for fishermen and their families, but also for many other people linked to the industry, in particular fish processors, most of whom are women.
“Artisanal fishing was once profitable, but not anymore,” says Justine Tinou, who sells dried fish, including sharks, every weekend at a bustling market in Pointe-Noire.
“Prices have gone up because fish are scarce. Shark, tuna – they’re both rarer now. Even sardinella, which was once so plentiful, you don’t see it anymore.”
Congo’s current economic crisis, brought on by falling oil prices and exacerbated by Covid-19, means women like Ms Tinou also face the dual threat of declining customer numbers and increased competition. , as more women are entering the processing sector to provide additional income to their cash-strapped households.
The lack of formal employment also means that the size of the artisanal fishing fleet, which currently numbers around 700 vessels, will only continue to grow, putting additional pressure on local shark populations.
Sharks are critically endangered around the world.
A global study of the oceans published last year in the journal Nature found they were “functionally extinct” in one-fifth of 371 coastal reefs monitored since 2015.
But poor fishermen like Mr. Pangou, who worked as an engineer for an Angolan oil group before losing his job when the company pulled out of Congo at the start of the civil war in 1993, see no other solution.
He hopes his children will have better opportunities.
“Fishing is really hard work. I don’t want this to be their future,” he says.
“For me, it’s an obligation to keep going to sea. But after so many years, that’s also where I feel most at home.”
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