China in Africa part 3: Mozambique
The beach that stretches out along Praia do Tofo, Mozambique, resembles a long, lazy horseshoe, with surf breaking all along the spotless sand. The holiday town, with its rundown lodges and backpacker cabins and ramshackle market, is the bay's economic centre. If there is a reason to come to Tofo, besides the cheap rum and the reasonably priced accommodation, it is to gawk at the wonders of its marine life.
In 2008, in front of the rustic lodge of Casa Barry, on the southern end of the horseshoe, that marine life was slaughtered wholesale.
Shortly after dawn, just as early rising tourists were sipping coffee and preparing for a day in the water, Mozambican fishing boats started coming ashore, discharging local fishermen and their catches. Sea turtles were beheaded, rays lay bloodied on the sand, and sharks - especially sharks - had their fins hacked off and were then chopped into chunks. Shark fins, apparently, were the order of the day.
What the more curious among the visitors knew was that nobody in Mozambique wanted those fins; they're exclusively a Chinese delicacy. To the horror of the Europeans, Australians and South Africans who had come to enjoy these creatures in their natural habitat, it seemed as if the beaches of Mozambique had become a killing field for everything scientists describe as Elasmobranchii - mostly predatory fish which have skeletons of cartilage instead of bones.
Recently, one of those scientists sat before us on Casa Barry's patio. His name is Dr Simon Pierce, and he's the executive director of a marine-based conservation organisation, Eyes on the Horizon. Pierce, 32, hails from New Zealand, received his PhD in conservation biology from the University of Queensland, Australia, and came to Tofo in 2005 to study sharks and rays. Along the way, he became both a specialist on sharks in the region, and something of a part-time cop.
"Mozambique has almost 3000km of coastline," Pierce says. "And, for the most part, it is unpoliced. When I came here, I had this naïve thought that the African coast would be pristine. But the truth is, I've never seen a fishing area under such pressure."
Pierce is referring specifically to Inhambane province, one of Mozambique's principal fisheries, and ground zero for shark finning. He claims there are 700 artisanal boats running out of the area, with all but the tuna fishery unregulated. After dark, the trawlers - mainly Taiwanese and Chinese - that spend the day beyond the horizon, move into sight along the coastline, their blinking lights informing everyone in Tofo that long-line fishing is taking place in the coastal waters.
The numbers, says Pierce, are scary. From the '60s to the mid-'90s, there has been a 92% reduction in the regional shark population. There are two main issues: first, the fishermen who catch sharks because of the astonishing price paid for fins (as much as 7000 metical, or R1540, per kilogram, which represents more than twice the monthly minimum wage); second, the long-line trawlers, which are either fishing for sharks outside the terms of their licence, or fishing illegally altogether.
It's the long-liners that appear to do the most harm. These vessels are highly efficient killing machines. The boat, in keeping with maritime law, is usually 49.99m long. Two steel arms, with winches, jut out either side and a thin, kilometres-long tensile steel wire is attached to a transformer buoy. As the buoy is let out to sea, sailors clip 7.6cm baited hooks to the wire every few metres. Usable fish are dumped into a power freezer, which ices them before they hit the hold. Sharks are finned on the deck, and the rest of the meat chucked into the water.
According to a report compiled by Eyes on the Horizon in 2008, 26 sharks were caught for every 1000 hooks when tuna long-line fishing began in Southern Africa in 1964. By 1998, reported catches for the same area had declined to 2.1 sharks per 1000 hooks.
And the situation has become catastrophic in the last decade.
While Mozambican customs officials have sworn that no licence has been applied for, nor granted, for the export of shark fins, tons of the delicacy leave the country every month.
Pierce's organisation has identified two possible routes for export: road transport south to Maputo, where fins are smuggled out from the port adjacent to the main fishing harbour, and the occasional use of a vessel outside the Bazaruto Archipelago, where fins are supplied directly from the small coastal town of Vilanculos - a few hours north of Tofo - by unknown means.
"The buyers based in Vilanculos are a trading centre for fins obtained at least as far north as Inhassoro," the report continues, "where an active shark fishery has been reported to exist in 2007 ... (In) early 2007, local Mozambicans set up a camp north of Vilanculos to receive fresh shark fins and dry them, after which they are delivered ... to the Chinese house in Vilanculos itself. This is apparently a response to pressure on the buyers from Eyes on the Horizon representatives. Fins are stored within a house in Vilanculos and protected by a very aggressive baboon."
The day after our interview with Pierce, we leave Tofo for Pomene, where in 2003 the local villagers - resentful of the disregard for tribal laws - forced shark fishermen out. Recently, these fishermen have returned, enticed by the presence of Chinese nationals and the burgeoning shark-fin market. There we meet the local chief, Frans Sathane, who confirms that the boats we saw the previous evening were Chinese. He sees them in his waters a few times a week, he says.
Chief Sathane was born in the area in 1947, and in 1968 he began working as a game-fishing skipper out of the now-ruined Pomene Hotel. In the early days, he'd hunt for marlin and swordfish; when he caught a shark, he'd cut the line. But the Chinese hunger for shark fin has changed his village, he says. The dire economic situation in Pomene means that not only do his people sell fins to the Chinese in Vilanculos and Beira, they eat the parts the Chinese don't want.
We'd learnt in Tofo that the sharks off the Mozambican coast have an extremely high heavy metal content, a result of inland mine pollution washing into the sea and entering the marine-life food chain. To eat them is to consume poison, and from the strong ammonia smell lingering on the Pomene beach where the carcasses are butchered, it's easy to understand why pregnant locals who eat these fish risk their babies' development. Because of the smell, Chief Sathane orders that shark is cooked far away from the village.
He also doesn't allow villagers to fish while female shark are releasing their eggs - a practice, he says, that the Chinese don't abide by. His interest in protecting Pomene's marine wildlife is simple: "If there is no turtle, no shark, this country is no country."
That afternoon, back in Tofo, we're hoping that one of the local skippers will take us on his boat to get a closer look at the long-liners. Initially, fired up by the rape of the seas that are his livelihood and his first love, he'd agreed. After canvassing local opinion, however, he'd decided that it was too dangerous - no vessels are allowed on the water at night, and we'd almost certainly be shot at.
With the sun about to set, we go instead to Buraco dos Assassinatos, a 5m-high blowhole on a bluff south of Tofo that's known in English as "Execution Rock". Covered on three sides by sharp barnacles and dropping onto small boulders at low tide, the shaft has been the site of untold numbers of assassinations in the past 40 years. First, the Portuguese used it to execute dissidents at the start of the rebellion, then Frelimo did the same to Renamo soldiers during the civil war. It's a gruesome death: you drop down alive, breaking an arm or a leg during the fall, your skin tearing on the narrow walls. When the tide comes in, your body is washed out for the sharks.
The same sharks, we're thinking, whose progeny are now being decimated at the hands of men. The difference is, there's nothing natural about this payback. Its cause is a market for a soup high in mercury content, a market that's growing as fast as the Chinese middle class.