Republic of the Congo cannot afford to lose its sharks

Could artisanal fishers help prevent illegal fishing and the destruction of the valuable shark population?

Sharks are essential for a healthy ocean, and the Republic of the Congo depends on a healthy ocean for food security. Yet sharks are endangered in African waters due to illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and weak governance in the fisheries sector.

Africa loses a million tonnes of fish through illegal fishing every year, accounting for a tenth of annual global losses. The economic cost to Africa is between US$10 billion and US$13 billion a year. Illegal fishing has grown along Africa’s coastlines, depleting multiple aquatic species, including endangered sharks listed in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

In 2001, the Republic of the Congo banned shark fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone of the Atlantic Ocean. Despite this, these waters are becoming a hotspot for illegal shark fishing, putting pressure on vulnerable shark populations, constraining reproduction and triggering a rapid drop in numbers.

The problem is driven by the local consumption of processed shark meat and the demand for shark fins in Asia. Several factors make the situation worse, including that maritime fishing is open all year round in the country. Both artisanal and industrial vessels can fish throughout the year within their individual quotas.

Artisanal and industrial vessels can fish throughout the year within their individual quotas

The fisheries directorate has limited capacity and resources to oversee and enforce legislation and control fishing through tracking, patrols and boarding vessels. A senior directorate official told the ENACT project that the agency lacked vital equipment, such as surveillance boats, to police the country’s vast maritime domain and counter illegal shark fishing.

An assessment of the artisanal shark trade in the Republic of the Congo details an active fleet of over 110 industrial trawlers, including Congolese-flagged vessels. Added to this are 700 artisanal fishing boats along the short 169 km coastline. This exceeds the estimated capacity of the country’s exclusive economic zone, which should be just 30 industrial vessels, says the Brazzaville-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Domestic and foreign industrial boats, which are legally authorised to fish, take advantage of weak surveillance to engage in harmful practices, such as using non-compliant fishing gear and ignoring regulated zones. In the port city of Pointe-Noire, artisanal fishermen reportedly catch between 400 and 1 000 sharks a day in peak season. Fishing vessels from China, Spain and South Korea allegedly target West and Central Africa’s coasts to trawl for all types of fish, including sharks.

Transhipment at sea – the transferring of stock from one ship to another that takes the catch to its final destination – has become a key way to launder illicit catches into the seafood supply chain. Transhipment also enables fishing vessels to stay at sea for longer. Such illegal operations deny the Republic of the Congo of valuable tax revenues.

The Republic of the Congo has 47 laws on fishery governance and yet illegal fishing persists

Illegal fishing threatens many of the 42 shark species found along the country’s coast, including the mako, thresher and scalloped hammerhead, which are listed as ‘critically endangered.’ These practices also threaten biodiversity and livelihoods. Trawlers destroy ocean ecosystems, damaging the seafloor as they rake up aquatic organisms and devastating vital seagrass and coral reef habitats.

This reduces communities’ catches and jeopardises local livelihoods. Artisanal fishers’ catches are increasingly made up of juvenile sharks – a worrying indication that shark fishing is becoming unsustainable and could imperil the fishing trade in a few years.

As apex predators, sharks occupy the top of the food chain and keep food webs in balance. Overfishing can cause food webs to become unstable and collapse. Sharks also regulate the behaviour of other animals, preventing the overgrazing of seagrass by turtles and dugongs. Seagrass habitats are essential for the growth of smaller fish populations, and store carbon at 40 times the speed of terrestrial forests.

The Republic of the Congo has 47 laws and decrees on fishery governance. And yet illegal fishing persists due to lax enforcement and sparse surveillance equipment. Civil society organisations should continue to pressure Brazzaville into acknowledging the harms and implementing its laws on shark protection and conservation, as well as the international protocols it has ratified.

Solutions should include working with the artisanal fishing sector rather than against it

Prioritising the acquisition, deployment and installation of maritime surveillance technologies, such as boats, shore-based sensors and communications devices, would help. These would collect, transmit and analyse maritime data in real time, including vessel movement, illicit fishing and related maritime crime.

Conservation strategies are essential to preserve endangered shark species in the country’s coastal waters. The fisheries directorate should facilitate the creation of fully protected areas for critical habitats, including nursery, breeding and feeding grounds, and migratory routes for the remaining shark species.

Single strategies won’t be sufficient. Solutions should include working with the artisanal fishing sector rather than against it, says Ife Okafor-Yarwood, an expert on maritime governance and security at the School of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

She told ENACT that the government often targets small-scale players rather than the industrial fishing sector. This is either because they have shared interests due to the revenue they accrue or simply because they have limited capacity to enforce the law. In the long term, working with the artisanal sector could help fill enforcement gaps. Fishers could become the government’s eyes on the sea and educate each other on the impact of illegal fishing.

Bilateral cooperation with regional maritime security bodies can also protect sharks from illegal fishing by improving surveillance of the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa, ISS

This article was first published by ENACT.

Image: © Alamy Stock Photo

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Development partners
ENACT is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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