Misanet.com / IPS, 4 June - Shark fishers have had to haul in their nets and put their canoes in dry dock following a government order banning their trade. The prohibition on the lucrative shark fishing has especially affected the fishing Beninese community living in the port city of Pointe-Noire, the economic capital of Congo Brazzaville.
- We're giving up fishing permanently. We're bringing in the nets, because fishing other species, like sardines, is no longer profitable, said Augustin Kegui, president of the Beninese fishermen's village.
Fishing regulators, who warned offenders there would be penalties, noted that "only accidental secondary catches would be allowed for the smaller sharks. Large specimens which are caught either accidentally or intentionally must be replaced." According to Congolese fishing regulators, the purpose of the interdiction is to ensure that the sharks are not overfished.
A circular issued by Henri Djombo, the Minister for Forestry Economy, who is also in charge of marine resources, noted that an unauthorized and uncontrolled increase in shark fishing along the country's coastline had triggered the ban.
The circular was addressed to industrial fishing companies as well as cottage-industry fisher folk. Shark fishing has seen an explosive growth because the fins are highly prized in Asia.
- As regards the growth of shark fishing, which has come about not due to domestic but rather foreign demand, notably from the Asian countries, the fishing of all species of shark has been temporarily suspended until further notice, the minister's circular read.
The biggest poachers are the fishermen for whom shark hunting has become a cottage industry. "Today, many small-scale Beninese and Congolese fishermen practice this trade illicitly to get fins to resell at high prices to West African traders. The latter sell them on the Asian market," said Frederic Niamba Itoua, the head of fisheries inspection and monitoring.
Both trawlers and professional small-scale fishermen hunt sharks along the Congolese coast.
Shark fishing by more traditional fishermen took off in 1998. There was little interest in sharks among the Congolese prior to that time. But the industry has seen an exponential growth in the last four years with the advent of shark nets, known as "kouta", and the discovery of lucrative markets.
- Of late, fishermen have been making massive catches of shark just to get their fins, explained Jean-Paul Ngomemouo Ofounda, the head of the trading and outreach service of the regional fisheries department at Point-Noire.
- Here in Pointe-Noire, a kilogram of fins sells for between 15,000 and 20,000 CFA francs, Ofounda says. "On the Asian market, the same kilogram costs 150,000 to 200,000 CFA francs," he said, adding that "the Minister's order will give us better control over smaller-scale shark catches. The shark is a species that must be protected, because they do not reproduce freely." One US dollar is equivalent to about 700 CFA francs.
Statistics are not yet available on just how many sharks have been removed from Congolese waters. However, the identified number of dugout canoes used for this practice has risen steeply, from 25 in 1999 to 250 in 2000.
The fisheries department does not have the means to closely monitor the 180-kilometre Congolese coastline. "The Congolese coast is not patrolled, leaving it clear for hundreds of pirate boats from Asia, Europe, and Africa to skim off whatever species they find and then shove off again, without a care in the world," Ofounda said.
Technically, shark fishing was to be limited only to permit-holders. Permits cost an average of 100,000 CFA francs a year. Permits for other types of fishing cost 25,000CFA francs. In 2000, a total of 126 shark-fishing permits were issued to private fishermen, which included nationals of Benin, the Congo, and Ghana.
- We are unable to control the Senegalese traders exporting shark fins, Ofounda said. "We need to know how many kouta nets are out there catching sharks."
Kegui, of the Beninese fishing village, said some fishermen use counterfeit permits. "Some of us don't have shark-fishing permits. We've just finished counting up how many dugout canoes there are. There are 101 involved in shark fishing."
Shark fishing is a big moneymaker for many traditional fishermen. "Shark fishing brings in real money. In three days fishing, you can earn between 35,000 and 50,000 CFA francs," Kegui said.
The present ban follows a similar one issued in 1998. The international community demanded that intentional shark fishing end and that only accidental catches be tolerated.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has drawn up a code of conduct for responsible fishing and has recommended that each country develop a national plan to protect and manage their shark populations.