Shark finning empties west Africa sea

2012-01-10 22:35

Saint Louis - Retired fisherman Sada Fall is upbeat. His two sons are returning from sea with a boatload of "gold", as he calls shark fins, whose value has near-obliterated the ocean's top predator in these seas.

Fall, 62, walks along the beach in this fishing village in the north of Senegal, his blue-grey boubou flapping in the dry, dusty wind, a bright red flowered umbrella shielding him from the scorching sun.

"This is the great shark cemetery," he says waving his hand dramatically across the beach where dried hunks of shark meat are piled up, filling the air with a musty, acrid odour as suffocating as the heat.

Colourful painted pirogues line the beach where children play and sheep wander around. A giant pelican is curiously tethered to one of the crumbling houses.

Saint Louis is one of the biggest shark landing sites in Senegal and one of scores along the west African coast where the predator is quickly disappearing.

Fall's sons have been gone for two weeks deep into Mauritanian waters for a voyage which, including food, water, fuel and salt to pack the fish, can cost more than €750.

Spurring these fishermen on is the insatiable Asian appetite for shark fins, which make their way onto ostentatious dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

"The fins don't stay here, they are worth a lot of money," says Fall.

He explains that when a boat lands, amidst the chaos of bartering and buying shark meat to be dried, smoked and sold in the region, the fins are swept away by intermediaries to Dakar, and treated very carefully.

Fins are gold

"The fins are gold, sometimes we keep them in our own living room - with the air conditioning on," he laughs.

Often the intermediaries will meet with Asian businessmen in a Dakar hotel to hand over the booty.

"You bring the bags, go into the hotel, hand over the bag, they hand over the money."

Mika Diop, a biologist and coordinator of the Sharks sub-regional Action Plan (SRPOA-Sharks) says that depending on the size and species of the fin involved, they sell for up to €150/kg.

But it is the men further up the chain who benefit the most, as many fishermen don't realise exactly how valuable their product is. Some restaurants charge more than $100 for a bowl of sharp fin soup.

"We catch them, but I couldn't afford a small bowl of soup," says Fall.

Many fins are also exported fraudulently through normal channels classified as dried fish, says Diop.

In West Africa, shark fishing began in the 1970's, booming in the nineties due to rising demand from Asia for shark fins, according to a report entitled 30 Years of Shark Fishing in West Africa co-authored by Diop in 2011.

Since 2003, shark catches have plummeted. This is not good news but a sign that there are less to catch.

Sharks unimportant

These days fishermen can spend up to 20 days at sea, heading as far west as Cape Verde or south to Sierra Leone in search of their gold, with what Diop bemoans as an often "mercenary mindset".

Diop explains that sharks are particularly vulnerable because it can take more than 10 years for them to reach sexual maturity and their fertility rate is very low, making recovery from overfishing all year round near impossible.

"On average the weight of the fin represents only 2% of the total weight of the animal, so you can see the massacre needed to keep up with the demand for shark fins," he tells AFP.

In Saint Louis, Fall finally gets a phone call from his pirogue. Days of bad weather have hampered fishing and even the good days have yielded no sharks. The boat is now expected the following day.

A fisherman for more than 30 years, he has seen first hand the worrying drop in shark numbers.

"We are obliged to catch small sharks. We know its not good but if one person doesn't, the next will...

"It brings in a lot of money, so we don't see the importance of the shark. We earn and we will keep on earning until the sharks disappear," he says sadly.

The shark fishing report talks of days when hammerhead sharks up to 6m and one-ton sawfish were caught in these waters.

The sawfish - printed on the back of Senegalese bank notes - hasn't been seen since the early 1990s in coastal waters from Mauritania to Sierra Leone, except for Guinea-Bissau.

Ban finning

According to the report, the value of sharks landed annually in 2008 in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde is estimated at €8.5m.

Diop's shark project has published an identification guide for fishermen and has helped west African nations put legislation in place, most importantly to ban "finning". In Senegal this legislation is still in the pipeline.

Finning is the practice of cutting of the shark fin while at sea, and tossing the rest of the shark back into the ocean to face a cruel death by suffocation or blood loss. Despite the laws, it still continues.

If shark-hunting, in Senegal and the world over, is not brought under control, Diop and other experts predict dire results for a marine ecosystem regulated by the predator for some 400 million years.

A report by the Pew Environment Group in June 2011 estimates some 73 million sharks are caught annually and 30% of species are threatened with extinction.

The fisherman Sada Fall becomes anxious and harder to get hold of. The "big shark guy around here" - his distributor - has left back to Dakar after hearing the fishing trip has not gone well.

Three days after the boat was supposed to land it reaches shore just after midnight. With no sharks caught, it quickly refuels and heads out again for several more gruelling, and expensive, days in search of fisherman's gold.

  • Boer - 2012-01-10 23:34

    And so man is wiping out Gods creations cause of man's greedy behaviour. What a pity.

      jody.beggs - 2012-01-11 13:47

      God's creations ? If he cared or existed, he would have wiped them of the planet?

  • Michael - 2012-01-11 00:49

    Let break this sentence down: "It brings in a lot of money, so we don't see the importance of the shark. We earn and we will keep on earning until the sharks disappear," he says sadly. Firstly: "It brings in a lot of money, so we don't see the importance of the shark." Ok, so your main source of income, is not that important? Secondly: "We earn and we will keep on earning until the sharks disappear." So no planning for the future, lets just carry on until there are no more, and we can go from there. This is the problem with Africa isn't it. It is just destroy destroy destroy, the ultimate consumers, without the ability to create. There seems to be no ability to plan for the future either. Maybe start thinking of creating a more viable way of living, build it up, find a way to make it sustainable.

      Robin - 2012-01-11 06:17

      Typical African regard(sic!) for the future - how often have I heard the phrase, "Shauri yu Mungu"? (It's God's problem!). Behind this are those @#$%^&*( Orientals again like they are behind ivory and rhino horn poaching, and abalone, and sea cucumbers, and, and, and .......

      jrheeder - 2012-01-11 07:09

      No no, the Eastern countries are the manipulators here, they are the ones who are bankrolling this. Unfortunately poverty means that you will provide for you family in any way you can. They know they are doing wrong but due to socio-economic pressures they are forced into it.

      Gungets - 2012-01-11 07:09

      Michael - just one small correction - Africa are the ultimate providers - it is the world that is consuming. Africa's fault is a subsistence mindset. With an average life expectancy of under 50 across the continent, I am not sure that I am surprised. What the world needs is for the rabid consumption of the world to come to an end, we need the "wealth" of the East to be exposed as it has been in the West as imaginary, paper that is worthless as soon as someone points it out. It is coming, the credit crunch in the West is going to look like a Sunday School picnic when it does. Perhaps then the money that leads to this will dry up. Perhaps in time, perhaps not. So I believe your statement "This is the problem with Africa isn't it. It is just destroy destroy destroy .." should read "This is the problem with the world isn't it. It is just destroy destroy destroy ...". Rainforests, wetlands, oceans, river systems (dams for yet more irrigation and human consumption), everything we touch is screwed by our greed. ------> "I have seen the enemy, and they are us!!" - Oliver Hazard Perry, 1812

      jody.beggs - 2012-01-11 13:50

      @Warwick. Typical racist comment coming from and idiot.

  • c.d.brittain - 2012-01-11 01:55

    Africans are the ultimate consumer? muhahahahaaa

      jody.beggs - 2012-01-11 13:52

      Actually African's sell it to be consumed by Asians.

  • Dirk - 2012-01-11 06:24

    TIA .... So typical of African mindset , abuse it till it is gone , no thought for the future , self gratification NOW , just like Locusts , AND That is why Africa will always be 3rd world and have nothing ....

  • The-third - 2012-01-11 06:41

    ******* Asia. Torpedo the bastards I say.

      Stephanie - 2012-01-11 07:05

      I'm sick to death of Asia's mindless slaughter. If its not cat and dog fur it's rhinos, elephants, sharks, then it's the whales, dolphins and seals. Everyone's making a killing in money and it's the animals who suffer beyond our imaginations

  • nathan.blows - 2012-01-11 07:08

    "About 10 people die from shark attacks annually. Between 100 and 200 million sharks are killed by humans annually, according to Sharkproject." - this was from a recent Health24 piece. That is shocking, to say the least.

  • Billy - 2012-01-11 08:22

    The worst is that this fisherman acknowledges that they are wiping out the species just for the money. There is no sustainability mindset. When the last shark has been fished out, will they sit on the sand and look to the West for aid and handouts?

      Warwick - 2012-01-11 09:25

      Of course they will. The african salute is an outstreched hand to the west. Not the middle east or the far east but the west. When they have finished destroying everything and breeding at an uncontrolled rate the west must provide.

  • Enlightened - 2012-01-11 08:50

    if anyone is caught definning sharks, they should simply get a mandatory 30 year jail sentence. Asking for them to be de armed or otherwise mutilated and then thrown in the water would be childish but that is really how I feel. I have seen footage on TV showing the faces of the culprits. arrest them just like you would with Rhino and Ivory poachers. I hate the human race. Finish

  • Zion - 2012-01-18 14:51

    During the 1950's and 60's this was common practice in Namibia. We used to see these Chinese and Japanese Boats strung out with washing lines the length of the boat with shark fins attached to dry out. The Russians were not far behind. Then nobody gave it a second thought.

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