Congo’s Fishermen Can’t Catch a Break

The dwindling number of sharks in the country is threatening an entire micro-economy that relies on them.

Artisanal shark fishers from Republic of the Congo venture into the night in search of sharks for sustenance and to meet demand for shark fins. (Shaun Swingler)

As the midday heat begins to subside in the coastal city of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of the Congo, eight fishermen shunt a rickety pirogue toward the Atlantic beneath a gray sky. As they dig their feet into the sand, a tattered Congolese flag flutters above the bow in the breeze. It’s good weather for shark fishing. “We are like soldiers who have taken the oath,” says Alain Pangou, the crew’s 54-year-old captain, a short man with angular features and a penchant for poetic turns of phrase. “What choice do we have but to go and fight?”

When they reach the water, the fishermen spring into the boat with an almost balletic grace. I flop clumsily into the hull after them. Our pilot, Gabi, who has a bent cigarette hanging from his bottom lip and wears a thick beanie despite the equatorial climate, throws me a disparaging glance. He slaps the side of the small outboard engine when it issues an initial sputter of protest, then opens it up to a high-pitched wail, and we pull away from the shoreline. Pangou, who instantly looks more at home at sea than he did on land, cracks open a bottle of beer and drains it in a few gulps. Then he sprawls across a pile of drift nets to rest before the long night of fishing ahead.

Formerly an engineer for an Angolan oil group, Pangou lost his job when the company pulled out of Congo at the outset of the country’s first civil war in 1993. The year-long conflict claimed 2,000 lives; 14,000 Congolese died during a second civil war that broke out just a few years later, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. In a desperate economic climate, Pangou, like countless others, saw the sea as his only viable alternative. “I couldn’t just fold my arms and do nothing,” he says. “I had a family to feed.”

He worked first as an itinerant crew member, and eventually established himself as a dependable and unflappable captain for hire. Initially, like most artisanal fishers in Congo (in the Congolese context, artisanal means “low-tech”), Pangou fished for sardinella: small, sardine-like fish found and consumed in abundance as a staple throughout western and central African countries.

Historically, the only Congolese who harvested sharks were the Vili, a minority coastal ethnic group that subsisted on the meat. Yet in the 1980s, migrant fishers from West African countries, especially Benin, began to target sharks in Congo’s waters to supply fins to visiting Chinese oil-industry workers. Back in China, a burgeoning middle class in a post-liberalization economy was fueling demand for shark-fin soup, a status dish. That appetite also sparked a local export industry in Pointe-Noire: West African middlemen purchased fins from fishmongers (who bought the sharks whole from migrant fishermen) and smuggled them through Congolese customs, shipping them to Hong Kong and, reputedly, to mainland China.

As Congo’s economy continued to free-fall in the years following the first civil war, the drastic devaluation of the CFA franc, the local currency, effectively doubled the price of fins. Pangou and other Congolese artisanal fishermen saw opportunity. They gradually began to target sharks in addition to sardinella.

Then, another seismic shift. Shortly after Congo’s second civil war subsided in 1999, Chinese industrial trawlers began arriving off the coast of Pointe-Noire, the country’s primary fishing hub, with the encouragement of the revenue-hungry Congolese government. This heralded a further boom in the shark-fishing industry. In Congo, industrial fleets can’t be licensed to target sharks, but artisanal fishers can, and they now had a new market to serve—workers on the Chinese boats also wanted fins.

In recent years, demand for fins in China has dropped by around 80 percent, but it’s growing in other Asian countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Studies suggest that the fin trade still accounts for a significant proportion of the estimated 70 to 100 million sharks fished globally each year. Artisanal fishers say that the poorly regulated industrial trawlers have depleted other staple fish stocks—particularly the sardinella, but also pelagic species including tuna, hairtail, and cutlassfish—leaving sharks as a substitute for their fleet of approximately 700 boats. Although cured or smoked shark meat has long been a feature of the Congolese coastal diet, it has now become both more ubiquitous and sought-after in bustling urban markets and traditional Congolese restaurants as a cheaper alternative to other fish. “It’s now consumed all over the country, not only in Pointe-Noire,” says Jean-Michel Dziengue, a Congolese fisheries monitor.

But mounting pressure on shark populations and a dramatically shifting geopolitical landscape now pose considerable threats to Congo’s artisanal shark fishermen, as well as to the expansive network of other Congolese who are involved in processing and selling the sharks once they’ve made it to land. The COVID-19 pandemic has blocked international trade routes and crippled an already-floundering Congolese economy. Meanwhile, a growing number of migrants from across the country and the wider region have been pushed toward the Congolese coast by a combination of climate change and conflict, increasing competition for the country’s already-overexploited marine resources. Congo has also continued to attract migrant fishermen from West African countries that have either seen their own fish stocks obliterated or implemented tighter controls in a bid to prevent such an eventuality.

Should Congo’s artisanal shark fishery collapse, the ramifications will reverberate across the country and the region. Given the similarly dire outlook for the sardinella—of which the vast majority is shipped to China for fish meal—the collapse of shark fishing would present not only economic and environmental concerns but also significant food-security risks. In a country where much of the population relies on fish (and increasingly shark in particular) as its primary and often only source of protein, the health of Congo’s artisanal shark fishery could become a matter of life and death.

Alain Pangou, an artisanal fishing captain, releases a drift net about 15 kilometers off of Pointe-Noire, the fishing and economic capital of Republic of the Congo.

For the time being, however, and contrary to a raft of international recommendations from organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or the FAO, artisanal shark fishing remains functionally unregulated and widely pursued all along Congo’s palm-fringed coastline, a biodiverse and highly productive transition zone between the warm Gulf of Guinea and the cooler waters of southern Africa. An in situ assessment by TRAFFIC, an international wildlife-trade monitoring network, showed that in 2019, in the months of March and April—the peak period for shark fishing—artisanal fishermen from Pointe-Noire were often collectively landing between 400 and 1,000 sharks and rays per day. Meanwhile, data collected between July 2018 and July 2019 by the University of Exeter in England in partnership with the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society, or WCS, and Congo’s fisheries department suggested a year-round daily average of roughly 100 to 400 sharks and rays.

Though Congo has no official population estimates for fish stocks, both Dziengue and scores of local artisanal fishermen interviewed for this story say that these recent catch estimates represent a significant drop from the industry’s heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s. These fishermen also say that they’re hauling in significantly fewer large breeding adults than in previous years and that the bulk of their catch is increasingly dominated by small juveniles—a telltale sign that the fishery is unsustainable.

At the same time, according to WCS data, between 2015 and 2017, the number of licensed industrial vessels operating off the Congolese coast increased by approximately 84 percent. Currently, around 110 industrial boats jostle for space in Congo’s 40,000-square-kilometer exclusive economic zone, although the Congolese government says it plans to eventually halve that number. By contrast, Congo’s better-regulated northern neighbor, Gabon, has just 24 registered industrial vessels operating in around 240,000 square kilometers. Theoretically, the first 11 kilometers from the coast of Pointe-Noire, thought to be key shark-breeding grounds, are reserved exclusively for artisanal fishing. But testimonies from fishermen and research by WCS indicate that illegal encroachments by industrial trawlers are a routine occurrence.

Congo’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries concedes that industrial trawlers are likely “accidentally” catching sharks, which they’re permitted to claim as bycatch, in addition to the staple stocks they’re licensed to fish. Congo doesn’t collect data on the number or species of sharks caught as bycatch, but in Gabon, a program that tracked 12 industrial tuna vessels between June 2017 and January 2018 found that they “accidentally” caught 2,053 fish and other marine animals, including 1,698 sharks, from “sensitive” species.

“If the scale of the industrial fleet keeps increasing and the volume of artisanal fishers does too, then I can’t see artisanal fishing being sustained at its current level for much longer,” says Kristian Metcalfe, a marine-conservation scientist at the University of Exeter who has been working with WCS to assist the Congolese government in implementing more sustainable marine management measures. Using GPS tracking, Metcalfe’s research has also shown that artisanal shark fishermen from Pointe-Noire are having to search ever farther from land, for longer periods, and in deeper waters for their catches—and are facing increasing concomitant risks in the process.

Pangou certainly isn’t oblivious to the potential perils of his work. As we stop to drop anchor around 15 kilometers from shore, with flashes of lightning occasionally illuminating the horizon, he recounts dramatic tales of biblical storms, as well as an incident in which a large and unruly tiger shark he’d hauled into the boat knocked him overboard. There’s something about the momentary role reversal of the shark in the boat and him in the water that particularly tickles him—he repeats this part of the story for good measure. “Back in those days, sharks were everywhere,” he adds with palpable nostalgia as he and the crew begin to let out their long drift nets into the turbid sea.

A little after dawn, the Pointe-Noire Artisanal Fishery Support Centre, or CAPAP, on the ramshackle periphery of the city is already a hive of activity. Local rumba music blares through enormous distorting speakers at either end of the facility as fish wholesalers lay out their stock on metal tables. Boxes of juvenile hammerheads are unloaded onto the hot concrete outside as pockets of buyers and fish processors barter vociferously. Nearby, a skinny fishmonger with a piratical gold earring cuts an impressive dorsal fin from an adult tiger shark. He passes it to a squat Senegalese fin trader, who drops it into a plastic shopping bag emblazoned with Barack Obama’s smiling face and swiftly departs the scene. He will likely box up hundreds of fins before slipping them through Congo’s customs unchecked, without permits. Like most of the fins that leave CAPAP, they will probably be flown first to Dubai, a major transit point for the international wildlife trade, before eventually reaching East Asia.

A little farther down the beach, a pirogue about the size of a family minivan crewed by eight Beninese migrants returns from a week at sea. They start to unload their catch onto the sand as a crowd of potential customers gathers. There are at least 25 adult sharks, including hammerheads, silkies, duskies, and tigers—some a disconcertingly putrid green, having presumably been caught days before—and maybe 100 juveniles, as well as a few threatened rays, whose considerable bulk requires two strong young men to drag them ashore.

As I look on, a man with a graying beard and sage expression approaches and introduces himself as Ivora Boussouhou. “You used to see many more sharks than this,” he tells me, wagging a finger dismissively at the scene in front of us. “When I started fishing at the end of the war, it was a complete massacre at sea,” he adds. “Every boat was bringing in at least 50 big sharks a day. But since 2012, it’s started to reduce. We don’t have a culture of conservation, and there are no quotas, so everything is being overfished.” He looks out to sea and absentmindedly pats his rotund belly before lighting a cigarette. “We can’t exist anymore,” he says, exhaling smoke through his nostrils. “Ten years from now, you won’t see artisanal fishing in Congo.”

The ramifications of any such doomsday would extend far beyond the fishermen themselves. In addition to their tens of thousands of dependents, there are countless other stakeholders within the value chain of small-scale fishing—including fish processors, the vast majority of whom are women.

“At the moment, things are very hard,” says Justine Tinou as she salts tuna—bought fresh from CAPAP that morning—in a plastic bucket outside her small clapboard home about 10 kilometers inland. As she works, three small butterflied hammerheads are drying on a rack in the hot sun behind her. “They stink,” she says as I inspect them, “but they taste good.” As sharks become scarcer, following the trajectory of other species before them, Tinou says prices have shot up. At the same time, Congo’s latest economic crisis, prompted by falling oil prices and exacerbated by COVID-19, means that she also faces the double threat of fewer customers and rising competition from more and more women entering the processing sector to provide for their struggling families.

The stakes for Tinou’s family are high. Her husband, formerly a teacher at a local public school, retired in 2005 but has yet to receive the state pension he is owed. The Congolese government’s woeful track record suggests that he likely never will. At the age of 69, Tinou has become the sole breadwinner for their seven children, not an uncommon scenario in Pointe-Noire. Some of her children are adults, but they’ve struggled to find work in the depressed economy.

“These women are badasses,” says Dyhia Belhabib, principal investigator on fisheries with Ecotrust Canada; she has worked extensively on fisheries in West Africa and central Africa. She says that the value they bring to the local economy often outweighs that of the industrial fishing sector, which takes the bulk of both the resources and the cash out of the country, rather than pumping it back into local communities. “The problem is that with industrial fisheries you can actually see the cash. You see the factories, the trucks, the ports.” The women who work as an extension of the artisanal fishing sector are less visible, Belhabib says: “They don’t necessarily go to the bank. They don’t necessarily keep official reports. It’s really a shadow market, but it’s still legal.”

Pangou (left) and his Congolese crew prepare a pirogue to head out to sea. (Shaun Swingler)

As a result, observers say, the concerns of women like Tinou—and those of Congo’s artisanal fisheries more generally—have often been sidelined by a hard-up Congolese state that’s heavily dependent on foreign investment, particularly from China. About 80 percent of the industrial-fishing fleet operating off the Congolese coast is Chinese, as is a large fish-meal-processing plant just outside of Pointe-Noire. Chinese companies also have a hand in countless other industrial and infrastructural developments all over Congo. There is, therefore, little incentive for the Congolese state to rein in the Chinese trawlers, which pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for fishing permits in addition to other taxes, fees, and direct investments. A 2012 report funded by the European Union showed that between 2002 and 2006, two Chinese companies alone invested more than $18 million to operate 17 vessels in Congolese waters. That’s a substantial amount of money in a country where the mean annual income for an artisanal fisher is $4,382, and some earn as little as $276 a year.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that artisanal fishermen—rather than the industrial sector—would likely have borne the brunt of a hastily proposed blanket ban on shark fishing that was put forward by the Congolese government in 2001 but abandoned 14 months later after belated consultations with the fishers. Although reinstating any such ban would make it easy to punish poor artisanal fishermen returning to land with sharks in tow, industrial trawlers could continue to operate with relative impunity farther out to sea, beyond the reaches of the country’s woefully inadequate coast guard. This would be a cruel twist, considering that these same trawlers have in various ways helped fuel the increasingly widespread phenomenon of artisanal shark fishing in the first place. According to Metcalfe from the University of Exeter, a blanket ban would ultimately do little to help restore local shark populations, so long as artisanal fishers remain dependent on the catch for their survival. “You’re just going to drive the trade underground,” he says, “where it will become more difficult to monitor.”

Constant Momballa, a central-Africa research officer for TRAFFIC, says a better place to start would be by dramatically expanding data collection, collation, and analysis on local shark populations. In part because of data shortcomings, the Congolese government currently defaults to using an on-demand quota system for artisanal fishers that doesn’t consider maximum sustainable yields; whenever the fishers reach their fill, they can simply request more and pay for a new permit. A similar system is in place for industrial fishing. Benoit Claude Atsango, Congo’s director general of fisheries and aquaculture, concedes that the current system has flaws, including the information gaps regarding sharks. “It’s always a problem of finances that holds us back,” he says, “meaning we haven’t been able to conclude any studies.”

Given sharks’ low fecundity, slow growth, and late sexual maturity, populations can struggle to recover from overexploitation—so action needs to be “immediate,” says Belhabib. Since the early 2000s, the FAO has urged Congo to develop a national plan of action to better manage shark populations. While the organization has laid out guidelines and would provide guidance to Congo if solicited, change ultimately must be a country-led process. Belhabib adds that any such development should take an inclusive approach: “Artisanal fishermen have fished for centuries. They know their waters. Their traditional knowledge is priceless, and it’s not used enough.”

At around 1 a.m., Pangou and his crew begin the hours-long process of reeling in their nets, which have been out since about 9 p.m. The distant lights of industrial trawlers occasionally punctuate the darkness around us. Farther away along the horizon, sections of the night sky are lit up by orange flares emanating from hulking offshore oil rigs; in recent years, Congo has reduced the artisanal-fishing zone by almost two-thirds to accommodate their growing number. There’s something dystopian about the whole scene. “It’s complete anarchy out here,” says Pangou, right on cue. “And the Congolese state is doing nothing to stop it. We need their support if we are going to survive.”

Gabi, the pilot, momentarily tries to keep up morale with an impromptu and effusive rendition of the Moldovan pop group O-Zone’s dreadful one-hit wonder “Dragostea Din Tei,” better known as “The Numa Numa Song.” But as the meager state of the fishermen’s haul gradually becomes apparent, the boat descends into a despondent silence. Two large crabs, a handsome langoustine, four juvenile hammerheads, an even younger dusky shark, and two threatened guitarfish are tossed unceremoniously into the hold, where they slosh around in an oily mixture of seawater and engine fuel. That’s all there is. The sharks are already dead, but the two guitarfish cling to life for a while, occasionally thrashing helplessly beneath my feet. There are no winners here tonight.

The crew hoists anchor, and as a steady rain sets in shortly before dawn, Gabi turns us around to head back to shore. Once back on land, Pangou will take two buses to get home, sleep for a few hours, and then maybe catch up on some Nigerian soap operas. But by the midafternoon, he’ll be back trawling the beach on foot, gathering updated weather and catch reports from returning pirogues. If conditions seem favorable and he can find an available boat and a crew keen to join him, he’ll be ready to depart again at a moment’s notice. “I see the sea as my home,” he says. “When you are at sea, there is always hope.”

This post appears courtesy of Hakai Magazine.