Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo – With the rise of industrial fishing off the Congolese coast, craft fishing teams have increasingly focused on shark fishing over the past few years to make a living.
There have been reports of sharks fishing for sharks on pirogues – narrow, canoe-like boats – in the area dating back to the 1980s, but the phenomenon has been steadily increasing over the past two decades, with activists warning that the practice is becoming unsustainable.
Activists say the rise of specialized shark fishing has been driven by several factors.
The construction of oil infrastructure abroad has reduced the areas where artisans can fish. The advent of industrial fishing trawlers has meant greater competition for fish. And the constant demand for shark fins in parts of Asia can make shark fishing profitable.
The artificial shark fishermen go far out to sea, cast nets overboard just before sunset and then lure sharks with bait and blood during the night.
On most days, hundreds of sharks are dumped along Songolo Beach in the Pointe-Noire fishing district, where they are sold on the spot. Many are hammerhead, big-eyed shark sharks, silky and mako sharks – all of which are endangered species.
Jean-Michel Dziengue, a Congolese activist from the environmental NGO Bouée Couronne, said that a large proportion of the sharks caught are small or young.
“The trend affects the entire fishery resource. In markets, fish are getting smaller and smaller. “It is a sign that people are fishing in spawning areas,” he said.
According to a 2017 survey by the Traffic NGO, 95 percent of the sharks caught in the Republic of the Congo (1,766,589 kg) come from pirogues of artificial fishermen – which is responsible for one third of their annual catch .
Dozens of different shark species are caught in the country, including seven listed in Annex II to the International Trade in Endangered Species Convention (CITES) and considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The increase in the number of pirogues involved exclusively in shark fishing in the Congo, according to Dziengue, was mainly caused by the rise of industrial fishing.
“Firstly, fishing areas were reduced by two thirds due to oil extraction in the sea. Then, foreign industrial vessels increased especially after 2005 when they jumped from 24 to more than 70 within a few years, and even started fishing in restricted areas without restrictions. “The artisanal fishermen were slowly pushed into a corner,” he said.
According to Traffic, in a maritime area where a maximum of 30 licenses must be issued to industrial vessels, as many as 110 vessels sailed in 2018. That number has dropped to about 80 vessels, according to Congolese authorities.
Dziengue said authorities did not have the means to enforce laws to prevent overfishing by industrial trailers. “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 rye species are dying out due to overfishing and the number of shark and rye species facing a “global extinction crisis” has doubled in a decade.
Senegalese shark biologist Mika Samba Diop told Al Jazeera that sharks are beginning to disappear from African seas in which they were previously common.
Sharks are ‘the gendarmes’ of the marine ecosystem balance, they live long but have poor fertility. “If they are fished intensively, severe damage is done,” he said.