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.