Captured: One great white shark and the attention of thousands
Sitting outside their modest reed hut the artisanal fishermen explained how a drop in fish stocks in their traditional fishing locations had led them to change from their preferred form of fishing with spear guns to the use of gill nets just two years ago. This form of fishing is of benefit to artisanal fishermen as it is a legal, low cost fishery - no specialised vessels are required and the nets can be procured from Maputo for 12,000mzn. But gill nets are a more indiscriminate form of fishing and incidental catches of larger species such as turtles, dolphins and sharks are a matter of increasing concern.
It was one of these so-called gill nets that caught the great white shark earlier this month. The fishermen lay their net – which is around 100m long - overnight in corridors that both sharks and other fish species travel through and return the following morning to check on their catch. Generally their catch consists of fish such as tuna, dorado and snapper, but often they also land sharks of different species including oceanic blacktip sharks and hammerhead sharks.
On this particular day the female great white shark was found alive in the nets when the fishermen went to check their catch. They said they were “scared” and waited for her to drown before pulling her up onto the beach where she was finned and cut up for meat. It was a successful catch for these guys who implied that great white shark fins are preferred as they can get more money than those belonging to other shark species.
Less than a week later, after drying the fins on a rooftop of a poured cement building in a remote village, the fishermen delivered the fins to a buyer in Inhambane. They weighed in at 7 kgs, and at 5,000 mzn/kg (US $160/kg) these subsistence fishermen made a total of 35,000 mzn (US $1,130) for the fins alone, other body parts including teeth can fetch 600 mzn (US $20) and the jaw holds a significant bounty and sells readily as a tourist trophy.
Putting the value gained from this single fish into context, a local fisherman from Inhambane province told us told us separately that he needs 150 mzn (US $5) per day for his family of nine to live sufficiently. That means the value of this catch, is really big money for these subsistance fishermen, and sadly it also provides motivation for targeting these apex predators.
In South Africa the catching, killing or possession of great whites was banned as part of the Marine Resources Act in 1991, but it was just this month that the first conviction was passed down.
A South African fisherman, Leon Bekker, was the first person to be fined for breaking the law against catching great white sharks. Mr Bekker pleaded guilty to a contravention of the Marine Living Resources Act after pictures emerged of him posing next to a white shark that he caught in Mossel Bay, South Africa. He was handed down a fine of 120,000 rand or a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for five years.
But in neighbouring Mozambique the story is quite different. The Regulation on Sport and Recreational Fishing (Decree 51/99 of 31 August) protects great white sharks under Annex II in the sport fishing law. Under Chapter IV, article 14 it states that the capture of these (Annex II) animals is prohibited.
However legislation only applies to a small proportion of the fishing community. As the catch was made by artisanal fishermen this was a legal catch under current Mozambican legislation.
This does not bode well for the conservation of sharks that populate our waters and those of our border countries. OCEARCH’s global shark tracker website shows that at least 5 great white sharks have travelled from Gansbaai and Mossel Bay in South Africa into Mozambican waters in the past two months.
Mozambique is a signatory to the Convention in International Trade of Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES). Great white sharks are listed on Appendix II of CITES which means that the international trade of all great white shark products is not allowed except with a CITES permit. For a permit to be approved, the onus is on the country of origin to determine that the fins are coming from a 'sustainably managed' population.
Therefore, the finning and capture of great white sharks by artisanal fishermen is legal in Mozambique until the products are traded internationally, without permits.
An unconfirmed Asian buyer, purchased these particular fins in Inhambane city, but whether they were destined for overseas markets we cannot be certain. Rumors have circulated that 'Chinese buyers' have been supplying nets to local fishermen, but our interviewees told us that they buy the nets, rope, sink lines, and all other materials themselves in Maputo.
Still the continuing demand from the Asian market for shark fins is not only worrying for the conservation of these animals – which are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List – but as disturbing is the shark meat being consumed by the local fishermen can have dangerous levels of methyl-mercury which renders it unsafe for human consumption and puts their health and wellbeing at risk.
The fishermen told us that they and their families intended to eat the shark meat – some of which they showed us defrosting out in the sun a few days after they catch. Their wives cook it with peanuts and chicken – “to make it taste nice”- and with the animal measuring 2.5m, a large amount of potentially poisonous meat could be consumed by these fishermen and their community.
Individuals living in communities where shark meat is eaten on a regular basis could have 2000% more methyl-mercury in their system than is considered safe.
What can you do to help?
You can help by refusing to support any restaurant found to be selling shark fin soup and refraining from buying any shark products such a teeth and jaws. Educate more of those around you and pass our information forward.
Meanwhile, Eyes on the Horizon will continue to try and identify where the demand is originating from and bring awareness to the local government about the plight of these animals.
Because we believe all hope is not lost:
Eyes on the Horizon: "What do you catch in the nets?"
Fisherman: "We catch sharks, catch fish, if I find a turtle I take it out and put it back."
Eyes on the Horizon: "Why?"
Fisherman: “The government and all the people say not to take the turtles out."
If you want to learn more watch Shiver, the Mozambique Documentary by MozImages and Sangue Bom about the shark fishing that is happening here.
Two other articles were written on the event and unsustainable fishing, one by the NGO Shark Angels, and another, that has made international media, by The Guardian. Several other journals around the world and NGO newsletters have picked up our story as well.
Please help spread the news.