Rare flying rays endangered by fishing in Congo-Brazzaville

Butchered rays on Songolo beach, in Pointe-Noire. Photo sent by our Observer Max.
Butchered rays on Songolo beach, in Pointe-Noire. Photo sent by our Observer Max.

In Pointe-Noire, a Congolese coastal city, mobula rays are routinely caught in fishermen's nets and then sold in local markets. It's a dangerous practice, since mobula rays, cousins to the famous manta ray, have been classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) since 2009.

A resident of Pointe-Noire brought this to the attention of the France 24 Observers. He often goes to Songolo beach, where he sees the rays being butchered.

Rays caught on Songolo beach in Pointe-Noire. Photo by our Observer Max.

"They sell the rays on the markets"

I often go running on Songolo beach, where I see traditional fishermen killing the rays they've caught.

There are women on the beach who buy the ray from the fishermen, to resell at markets in Pointe-Noire. A whole ray there goes for between 40,000 and 50,000 CFA francs [between about 60 and 76 euros], depending on the size. There are a lot of people who buy them, even though they’re more expensive than most of the other fish.

Ray caught on Songolo beach, in Pointe-Noire. Photo sent by our Observer Max.

Contacted by France 24, the departmental director of fisheries in Pointe-Noire, Antoine Missamo, sought to put the issue in perspective. "The fishing of rays occurs accidentally, when they get caught in the nets of local fishermen," he said. "But the species is not at all sought after. The fishermen don't target rays, because they're very large and they wreck their nets, which is very costly for them." Mobula rays, like manta rays, are not accorded any special protection in Congo-Brazzaville.


A dead ray on the beach. Photo taken by our Observer Max. 

"Accidental fishing has a destructive effect on the rays, which don't have much reproductive capacity"

Rachel Graham is a biologist and the founder of MarAlliance, a private foundation that conducts research on rays and campaigns for their protection. She examined the photos provided by our Observer. According to Graham, the rays depicted in them are Mobula rochebrunei, a species classified as "vulnerable" by the IUCN, a category right below "endangered."

Even if the sale of these rays is the result of an accidental catch and it's not happening on a large scale, it has very harmful effects on the species, which don’t have much reproductive capacity. The mobula ray has a gestation period of a year, and rarely gives birth to more than two offspring. And they can only reproduce every two or three years.

Maybe the departmental fisheries director is right, and this is just small-scale fishing that isn't directly targeting the rays. But the problem is that we just don't know: there's a complete absence of data on the rays that live off the coast of Congo and, more broadly, off the coast of all of West Africa.

In 2010, some colleagues from Congo-Brazzaville sent me photos and information suggesting that the fishing of mobula and manta rays was increasing. I tried to get financing to conduct some deeper research in the coastal border region between Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon, so as to confirm or reject that hypothesis. But no donors were willing to help me. So we still don't know how many rays there are, how their population is evolving and the factors affecting it."

"We don't know what the repercussions are of industrial fishing on rays in Congo-Brazzaville"

Nevertheless, we have serious concerns, because one of the factors leading to the increase in the fishing of these rays is demand from the Chinese market. The Chinese want their gills, which are used in traditional medicine. The various Chinese communities that are now implanted in Africa are causing this rise in demand.

Nor do we know what the repercussion is of industrial fishing on rays in Congo-Brazzaville or in the Democratic Republic of Congo next door. Big Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and French boats fish there, and we know that mobula and manta rays that are accidentally caught by these boats and then thrown back in the water don't survive. We're asking that five percent of the boats be assigned observers from the regional fisheries management organisations, which set quotas for fish caught in each zone. But it's very complicated to put this in place, because the sailors don't want to cooperate.

There are nine different species of mobula ray, and three species of manta ray. Quite little is known about them, and what research has been conducted has occurred only in the last ten years or so.

In 2013, manta rays were added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Appendix includes species that could be threatened by extinction if commerce involving them is not tightly controlled. Signatory states have pledged to monitor their reproduction and fishing. Next month, CITES signatories will decide whether or not to list the nine species of mobula in Appendix II. Congo-Brazzaville is not a signatory to the convention.