Andy Cornish's Blog

Dr Andy Cornish was raised in Hong Kong, and gained a strong interest in wildlife through spending time in Pokfulam Country Park. He studied Zoology at Nottingham University in England, travelled extensively through Central America where he learnt to scuba dive, and later did his PhD on reef fishes at the University of Hong Kong. Since then, he worked for a year doing coral reef management for the government of American Samoa, and taught in the Dept. of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of Hong Kong. He worked at WWF from 2005 to late 2012 as Conservation Director, and was responsible for four programmes: Climate, Footprint, Local Biodiversity and Regional Wetlands (including management of the Mai Po Nature Reserve). He remains involved in environmental issues on an independent basis.

Pristine Mozambique takes a hammering

Sharks, and manta rays targetted by Asian traders
February 21, 2013

In May last year I fulfilled a life-long dream to dive with hammerhead sharks. I had to travel 9,700 km to Mozambique to do it but was amply rewarded. I have rarely felt so alive, bobbing around in a small skiff in deep blue waters teeming with life, never knowing whether I was seconds away from an encounter with mantas, whale sharks, hammerheads, tiger or bull sharks, dolphins or countless other marine creatures. I saw all of these over a ten day period apart from the whale sharks, which eluded me, but never before had I visited an area which still has so many big critters cruising its waters. 
The Scalloped hammerheads were eveything I had hoped for and more. They always seemd to come from behind us during the dives, and while we were in blue water slowly returning to the surface, sometimes one or a pair, and even small schools of up to 15, and oh how lithe and graceful. One school even passed under the boat when we were decompresing inbetween dives, causing several of us to leap in with no more than a mask.
 
That utopia has been shattered for me by increasing reports, most recently in the Guardian, of the shark and manta populations being systematically targetted by Chinese traders supplying local fisherman with improved fishing gear, and letting it be known they're willing to pay for fins and manta gill rakers (used in the Chinese medicinal trade). If nothing is done soon, the world will lose one of the last remaining regions where the marine ecosystem remains intact. Already research from the local Marine Megafauna Foundation who I talked to shows that manta populations have crashed 87% in the last 10 years.
 
The Guardian's interviews with poor fishermen reminded me of a shark fin trader at the Seafood Summit last year who insisted that catching sharks could provide poor fishers with 30% of their income. The truth is far less convincing as unregulated shark fisheries (like that in Mozambique) classically boom and bust within a few years leaving the seas empty and the fishers back to square one, while the traders simply move onto the next area - not that there are many left to exploit.
 
Mozambique has incredible potential for marine eco-tourism and is well known to South Africans, but will lose the potential to be a world-class destination in the mould of Fiji, and the multitude of safe jobs the tourism industry supports, before most people ever hear about it at this rate. I have never ever seen with my own eyes such a clear link between fishing and marine life as in Tofo and Ponto d'Oura. The local boats were either sail-powered or - incredibly - large rowboats, so were unable to go out far or in rough weathers, and sure enough the rocky reefs just a few miles offshore were meccas for big fish.
 
I understand that the government is interested in developing sustainable shark fisheries, but this is unlikely to be a good fit for Mozambique. It can be done, and I've blogged on this before, but needs a strong fisheries management authority, good enforcement and a lot of care. No solution is going to be straightforward for a country still emerging from extreme povery, but Mozambique has incredible potential to reposition itself on the global map as a tourism hotspot where the full wonders of the ocean be experienced close-up. People will pay handsomely for the privilege.
 
The thought that fins from the sharks I dived with off the coast of Africa might end up in Sheung Wan where I live is haunting me. I'm not sure what to do about it yet, but will start by writing a letter to the Mozambique Consulate here in Central. If you've got other ideas I'd love to hear about them.
 
Andy     

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