Sharks are critical to a healthy ocean and a healthy ocean is critical to the Congo’s food security. Yet they are in danger in African waters due to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and weak governance in the fisheries sector.
In this context, Africa loses one million tonnes of fish annually, which accounts for a tenth of annual global losses. Estimates vary, but the economic loss from IUU fishing in Africa is between $10 billion and $13 billion a year.
IUU fishing has grown along Africa’s coastlines, with multiple aquatic species negatively affected. This includes various endangered shark species listed in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
In 2001, the Republic of Congo ratified and adopted the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, prohibiting shark fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Atlantic Ocean. However, recent events show that the country is fast evolving into a major hotspot for IUU shark fishing, putting pressure on vulnerable shark populations, constraining reproduction and triggering a rapid drop in numbers.
IUU shark fishing in the Republic of the Congo is driven by the local consumption of processed shark meat, as well as the demand for shark fins in Asia, and is exacerbated by several other factors. One key factor is that maritime fishing is not seasonal and is open all year round in the country. Official quotas authorise both artisanal and industrial vessels to fish throughout the year within their individual quotas.
So too, the Directorate of Fisheries has limited capacity and resources to oversee and enforce existing legislation and to control maritime fishing effectively through tracking, patrols and boarding. A senior official at the directorate who spoke to ENACT noted that the major challenge confronting the agency is a lack of critical equipment, such as surveillance boats, to police the country’s vast maritime domain and counter illicit shark fishing.
An assessment of the artisanal shark trade in the Congo details an active fleet of over 110 industrial fishing trawlers, including Congolese-flagged vessels, and 700 artisanal fishing boats along the country’s short 169 km coastline. This exceeds the estimated capacity of the country’s EEZ, which should be just 30 industrial vessels, says the Wildlife Conservation Society, a Brazzaville-based non-governmental organisation.
Domestic and foreign industrial fishing vessels, which are legally authorised to fish, take advantage of weak surveillance systems to engage in harmful fishing practices, such as using non-compliant fishing gear and ignoring regulated fishing zones.
For example, in the port city of Pointe-Noire, artisanal fishermen reportedly catch between 400 and 1 000 sharks a day in peak season. Reported evidence shows that fishing vessels from China, Spain and South Korea target West and Central Africa’s coasts, including the waters of the Republic of the Congo, to trawl for all types of fish, including sharks.
Transhipment at sea – when illegally caught fish are transferred from a fishing vessel to another vessel that takes the catch to its final destination – has become a key means for laundering illicit catches into the seafood supply chain. Transhipment also enables fishing vessels to stay at sea for longer. Where this is an illegal operation, it denies the Republic of the Congo much needed tax revenues.
IUU fishing is threatening many of the 42 species of shark found in the country’s coastal waters, including the mako, thresher and scalloped hammerhead, which are assessed as ‘critically endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
IUU shark fishing also threatens biodiversity and livelihood in the Republic of the Congo. The trawlers indiscriminately destroy ocean ecosystems, damaging the seafloor as they rake up myriad aquatic organisms, including as bycatch, while devastating important habitats of seagrass and coral reefs.
This consequently reduces the catch for local communities and jeopardises fishers’ livelihoods. The catches of artisanal fishermen are increasingly dominated by juvenile sharks. This is a worrying indication that shark fishing is becoming unsustainable in the country’s coastal waters and could imperil the fishing trade in a few years.
As apex predators, sharks typically occupy the top of the food chain and keep food webs in balance. Overfishing the shark population can cause food webs to become unstable and potentially collapse. Sharks also regulate the behaviour of other animals by preventing the overgrazing of seagrass by turtles and dugongs. Seagrass habitats are not only essential for the growth of smaller fish populations, but they also store carbon at 40 times the speed of terrestrial forests.
The Republic of the Congo has 47 laws and decrees on fishery governance. However, IUU fishing persists due to lax enforcement and the lack of surveillance equipment. Without an appreciation of the immediate and longer-term harms, the impetus to act will remain weak.
Civil society organisations are well placed to continue to pressure Brazzaville to acknowledge the harms and begin implementing its own laws and regulations on shark protection and conservation, as well as the international protocols that it has ratified. Prioritising the acquisition, deployment and installation of integrated maritime surveillance technologies, such as boats, shore-based sensors and communications devices will boost capacity. These would help to collect, transmit, and analyse maritime data in real time, including vessel movement, illicit fishing and related maritime crime.
Implementing conservation strategies to preserve the vanishing species of sharks in the country’s coastal waters is critical. In view of the significance of sharks and their endemic depletion in the country’s waters, the Directorate of Fisheries needs to facilitate the creation of fully protected areas for critical habitats, including nursery, breeding and feeding grounds, as well as migratory routes for the remaining shark species.
Single strategies will not be sufficient however. Solutions may also include working with the artisanal fishing sector rather than against it, according to 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 when it came to measures aimed at sustainable fishing, the government often targeted small-scale players rather than the industrial fishing sector. This was either because they had a shared interest in the business due to the revenue they accrued, or simply because they had limited capacity to enforce the law.
In the long term, working with the artisanal sector could help fill the gaps around enforcement. Fishers could become the government’s eyes on the sea and educate each other on the impact of IUU fishing.
Lastly, bilateral cooperation with regional bodies on ocean governance and maritime security for effective surveillance of the country’s EEZ is pivotal to protect sharks from IUU fishing.
Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa