Monday, January 12, 2009

Threatening those that threaten: Sharkfinning in Mozambique


Southern Africa has some of the richest shark waters in the world – which is part of the reason I find myself, a shark conservationist from Chicago, USA, drawn here. Over 210 species live in the nearby waters, more than 60 of which can only be found here.

However, like many other places around the globe, Southern Africa's sharks are vanishing before our eyes at alarming rates. Shark finners, motivated by the out of control demand for shark fin, have locked their target and are ravaging one of Africa’s most precious resources. Leaving behind a wake of disaster for the locals – and the rest of the world - who will suffer considerably when these waters are depleted of sharks.

I learned this first-hand on a recent trip to Mozambique.

Offshore, it is estimated that the area surrounding Mozambique has the highest concentration of long-line fishing vessels in the world. Over 200 are targeting shark for their fins. Any one of these vessels is capable of catching more than 100 tons of sharks per trip, quickly offloading to factory ships offshore only to fin again. In June, an illegal Namibian ship was seized with 43 tons of sharks, an estimated value of US$5 million, onboard the unlicensed ship.


Inshore, sharks face a similar fate from artesianal fisherman.

With 80% of Mozambicans living below the poverty level, it isn’t surprising that sharkfinning is running rampant. Fins from a single shark can fetch up to US$120, a few months’ income. Consider a small boat can land as many as 1,000 sharks a year and you have the recipe for environmental disaster.

The word is out. Shark fins mean big money and fishermen, desperate to feed their families, are heeding the call.


Before long-line fisheries began in early 2000, anecdotal reports indicate the shores surrounding Mozambique were rich with sharks and rays. These days, it is a very different story, with our own dives consisting of a rare shark or ray sighting only a handful of times. Unfortunately, the lack of infrastructure available for coastal monitoring and enforcement leaves Mozambique, like so many other countries, horribly exposed to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The government estimates that last year, the cost of this fishing to Mozambique was almost US$40 million.

However, a public groundswell is forming. Those passionate about sharks have formed a group called Eyes on the Horizon. A brilliant concept and one long overdue, members serve as the “eyes and ears” for the resource-strapped government. It was their Executive Director, Simon Pearce, who told us about Pomene.

When we arrived in Pomene, we recalled Simon telling us the shark finners were chased out just three weeks prior. A group of migrants who systematically move up the coast of Mozambique, they relocate when a local shark population is depleted – or when a local community becomes fed up with the impact the shark fisherman have on their livelihood – including the fish and tourists that they rely upon. Fishing accounts for over 50% of Mozambican’s incomes so it wasn’t long before local fishermen realized that when the apex predators like sharks are removed, the other fish beneath them on the food chain disappear as well.

Pulling into town, we spied the telltale sign of shark fishing: shark jaws hanging in the roadside curio huts. Upon closer inspection, the fresh, pink flesh on the jaws indicated these were recently caught. There were over a dozen jaws - bulls, tigers, grey reefs - some from sizable animals. When I began asking about the jaws, everyone surrounded me eager to make a sale. But, as more and more questions arose, suddenly everyone’s English was forgotten.


It was obvious the shark fishermen were still nearby.

Searching for shark fisherman is a complex and can also be a dangerous game. Especially in a third world country rife with poverty and crime where English is not readily spoken. You can’t simply go in and start asking questions expecting to be dropped on the deck of a long-liner with a gracious welcome, nor can you intentionally jeopardize the excessive income of a fisherman surrounded by poverty - without putting yourself into immediate jeopardy. Given the money involved, shark fishing is not unlike drug trafficking rife with suspicion, murder and corruption. Many shark finners operate behind veils of secrecy and are known to be ruthless - often times shooting at those that try to stop them. Some of my conservationist friends know this firsthand having found themselves at the business end of machine guns - which I am told are easily come by in Mozambique.

So, instead, you must build rapport and trust with a few locals. You must ask innocent, uninformed questions and remain completely non-judgmental about the responses. You must invest time and learn what motivates the community. You must earn the respect of local conservationists by proving you are passionate and just want to help, easing their suspicions. You must consider everyone an asset extracting bits of information from all you meet, fashioning it together like a complex jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are spread out over miles of terrain. And, you must get lucky. Which, in this case, we did.

After a week building rapport, we earned the trust of a resort owner and his local staff who knew plenty about the shark fisherman – and were willing to serve as our translators and transportation. And we gathered enough intelligence to know the shark fisherman were indeed migrants disliked by the locals, who were supplied their fishing gear by the businessmen that purchased their fins and were actively still fishing five kilometers up the coast in a village whose chief was notoriously corrupt.

That was enough to pull together an expedition to locate the shark finners.

It wasn’t long before we found their camp… and their long-lines. And it wasn’t long before they found us; our boat was identified immediately. These shark fisherman were extremely nervous already – as they had just been chased out of their previous camp. They weren’t about to let it happen again.

A few local fisherman gave their lines up, pointing us in the direction of two buoys, about 50 meters apart and equidistant from shore. Innocent enough, the buoys floated at the surface. If you didn’t know better, you would never have guessed what was sunken below.


The boat full of shark fisherman saw us approach their buoys and immediately went back to their camp for reinforcement. We took advantage of the gap and slipped into the water. But we were told to hurry – it wouldn’t be long before our problems multiplied. So We descended to see what lay below.

What we found was two sets of sunken lines (called bottom lines) one tied to each buoy line near the sandy bottom. A few meters later, we found the first attached long-line with a “j” hook, thick and corroded, ten meters apart from the next hook, baited with what appeared to be eel (later we found they were getting bait from the protected estuary nearby and had been chased away countless times). The fishing lines were heavy ropes with attached metal lines and swivels to ensure a captured shark wouldn’t be able to bite through the line or break free.

The lines extended past the sand, right over the reef, and my heart sank as I recalled all the other long ropes I had seen laying on the fragile coral at the other dive sites we had visited. The fisherman had been there too.


In the short time we dove the lines, we found a huge remora with a hook through its eye socket, bleeding profusely, obviously unintended bycatch. The remora’s sad eyes plead with us to save it though it seemed to have accepted its fate, lying in an unnatural position presumably overcome by agony. We tried desperately to free it, but to no avail. My mask grew blurry and I realized I was shedding tears for what I knew was happening here – and on the rest of the hooks throughout the world that I couldn’t see.


When we ascended, the resort owner told us we must go in a tone that conveyed a clear sense of urgency. Still in shock, we gathered our gear together and prepared for a speedy journey home. As we neared the beach to make our way home, the shark fisherman began pouring out from the bluffs, some with machetes in their hands. There was much shouting and hand waving as they accused us of cutting their lines and dared us to land the boat on shore. And, even though I did not speak Portuguese, there was no mistaking the tone, intensity and visual cues. These fisherman were ready for battle.

The resort owner suddenly realized the guide had a shirt on from the resort and whisked us away before we could be identified – fearful of the ramifications. The night watchmen were put on full alert for days following the incident, as he knew exactly what we were dealing with. We were miles away from any sort of enforcement or support, let alone infrastructure. Laws didn’t apply in places like this – and there was no place to hide.


I was so caught up, it wasn’t until days later that I realized just how much danger we were in. Caught up in passion, I lost all sense of reason having finally found myself with the ability to take on those killing the sharks face to face, and I was willing to do whatever it took. Thankfully, my mates, having grown up in Africa, prudently recommended we return when we have more support and options.

In the meantime, we have turned over the finners’ location to the governmental agency, Maritima, and to Eyes on the Horizon. I am hopeful they will do whatever they can – including the government whom boldly showed commitment to the cause by recently deciding to turn that seized Namibian shark fishing vessel into a patrol boat.

And, we are determined to return to Mozambique to get involved in grass roots efforts, educate local fisherman on other sustainable options, work with Eyes on the Horizon, and, in some small way, contribute towards the establishment of a structure that the rest of the world can follow. We need to send a message that shark finning cannot and should not be tolerated in any country – nor can it be sustainably beneficial, either economically or environmentally.

We are all connected to one another, and to the sharks, who keep our oceans healthy. Countries around the world, like Mozambique, who are struggling with basic socio-economic issues, desperately need everyone’s help to save the last remaining sharks. I just hope we aren’t too late.

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