Lure of Chinese money blamed for plunder of Mozambique marine life

Sharks and giant manta rays are being driven to extinction in Mozambique to feed Asia's demand for their fins, conservationists say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 3:21am


Standing among coconut and mango trees near the coast of Mozambique, Fernando Nhamussua carefully prepares shark meat for a family meal - and contemplates a basket with a profitable haul of four dried shark fins.

"I want to sell them to the Chinese," the 33-year-old says, estimating that a kilogram's worth will fetch about 5,000 meticals (HK$1,300). "We take them to town where there are Chinese buyers. It's good money."

Nhamussua reckons he has sold 20 fins so far, boosting his normal income and his hopes of completing a modest concrete house that stands unfinished.

But this burgeoning trade along the Mozambican coast is posing an existential risk to species including the magnificent manta ray, a major drawcard for tourists.

Fishing for sustenance has long been a staple here, with few alternative sources of income. But it is an open secret that Chinese syndicates are not content as passive buyers. Instead, they are supplying improved fishing nets to help satisfy their appetite, not just for shark fins, but for manta ray "wing" tips.

Andrea Marshall, director of the Marine Megafauna Foundation in Tofo, said: "Far more people benefit from tourism here than from the fishing industry. The economic argument for preserving these charismatic animals in the long term surely outweighs a one-off profit for a few fishermen and Chinese."

Inhambane has one of the biggest manta populations in the world, with 908 known to the foundation, but has witnessed an 87 per cent drop in the past decade. This means that where visitors could once expect to see six or seven of the enormous creatures in a single dive, now the average is less than one.

Time is running out for the manta, a beautiful ray with big, triangular pectoral "wings" up to seven metres across that has a meagre reproductive cycle.

Marshall, principal scientist for the manta ray programme, said: "We're looking at decimation in the next decade or decade-and-a-half. Manta rays are in big trouble along the coastline."

Nhamussua's nephew, Americo Gilamba, is 19 and has scant other career prospects. "We do it because we don't have a good job," he explained, standing in the small, sandy family settlement that includes huts made of reeds and coconut leaves. "We know it's not good and the Chinese are killing things that are not allowed to be killed, but we do it to survive and get some money. We don't want to have to steal from others. If we were given an alternative, we would stop."

Carla Victorino Guicome, who last year became the first Mozambican woman to qualify as a diving instructor, said: "I am sad, I am angry because if it continues like this it's going to kill tourism in Mozambique. No more tourists will come here."

She continued: "People come from all over the world to enjoy diving with sharks and manta rays, but if this goes on, they won't be there any more.

"The Chinese don't respect marine life and they're trying to destroy our heritage. The government doesn't seem to be doing anything to stop it."

Conservationists have called for legal protection of species such as sharks and manta rays, the banning of gillnets and greater education and alternative livelihoods for fishermen. But the fisheries ministry is powerful.

Fishermen are more efficient than ever thanks to bigger nets and more sophisticated equipment. "Sometimes the fishing nets are given by the Chinese, other times they're part of official schemes intended to benefit fishing communities," Marshall said.

And when she followed the money, it led to China. "It's a very secretive operation, but we've had confirmation of the Chinese buying and shipping them out."

Carlos Carvalho, an activist based in the capital, Maputo, claimed Chinese traders were even trying to obtain boats to extend the fishermen's range.

"The Chinese are gangsters and they have the protection of certain officials in Inhambane province," Carvalho said. "Every month it is escalating. Inhambane is out of control. It is the killing field of Mozambique and nobody is doing anything about it."