JOHANNESBURG — One of Africa’s most urgent ecological crises has nothing to do with rhinos or mountain gorillas and is taking place far from the continent’s fabled savannas and mountain rain forests.
The rich marine ecosystem off the coast of Mozambique is “in free fall,” according to biologists who are increasingly sounding the alarm that some critical species could be lost within the decade.
Whale shark numbers are tumbling, along with manta rays. Dugongs — a relative of the manatee — are down to a single, viable population.
Originally from California, Andrea Marshall has made a study of sea life in Mozambique and heads the U.S.-based Marine Megafauna Foundation. She is also the first person ever to earn a PhD. focusing on manta rays, which are rated as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In an interview, she says the goal of her work in Mozambique is “to save our ocean giants from extinction.”
Almost two decades ago, Ms. Marshall went diving near Inhambane, 230 miles north of the capital, Maputo, describing the experience as akin to “finding a lost world, undisturbed and rich with life.”
Now, she says, she fears that world is being wiped out.
“The manta rays I studied for my doctoral thesis are an example of what is happening to most species in the [Mozambique] Channel,” she said, referring to the ecologically rich waters that separate Mozambique from the island nation of Madagascar off the southeast African coast. “Once common, their numbers are down by 95% in some areas. And it’s the same for others, including the endangered whale shark, dugong and grouper.”
Rays, she notes, are especially vulnerable because of their attraction to poachers.
“As with rhino horn, manta cartilage is being sold in Asia as a health tonic, despite the fact that it has no medicinal value,” she said.
She said the Mozambique Channel was once ranked among the world’s top spots for avid divers. “Now, at night, the horizon is filled with the lights from fishing boats. And buyers, mostly from Asia, pay coastal communities for shark fins and turtle shell.”
Mozambique loses an estimated $60 million a year to illegal fishing, and the government brought more than 200 prosecutions in 2018 alone.
But when the country drew up a plan to buy its own fishing fleet and patrol boats, the project was dogged by charges of corruption. In a court case currently underway in New York, the U.S. Justice Department is claiming that millions of dollars were siphoned off the project.
South African marine biologist Rhett Bennett works for Wildlife Conservation Society. Headquartered at the Bronx Zoo, the society helps protect some two million square miles of habitat around the world.
He described the western edge of the Indian Ocean as “a global hotspot for sharks and rays,” with more than 220 species. Mozambique, he added, was “the core” of the marine population.
But he said the region was now at risk.
“More and more fish stocks are overexploited and sharks and rays are increasingly being targeted, for meat, fins, oil and other products,” he warned.
At Wild Oceans, a Durban, South Africa-based nonprofit advocacy group, Executive Director Jean Harris said that while intervention, arrest and prosecution are all important, African countries also need “the resources to detect and prevent illegal fishing in the first place.”
“Fish, sharks, turtles, even dolphins are being removed from the sea in tons, and some of these species will vanish altogether in a very short time unless action is taken now,” she said.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has long backed a need to police and protect the waters around Africa.
In Cape Town, Craig Smith manages WWF work for the western Indian Ocean.
“This area is recognized as one of the most biodiverse hot spots on the planet, and provides a source of livelihood and food for millions,” he said.
But he said the waters were threatened by overfishing and habitat destruction, a threat that has been “amplified by climate change.”
In Maputo, the Mozambique capital, Leonilde Chimarizene is director of operations for the government department responsible for both fresh and salt-water habitats. She said that despite legislation, protected species continue to be harvested and depleted.
Mozambique has the longest stretch of Indian Ocean coastline in Africa, running for more than 1,600 miles. Ms. Harris said there was still hope that something could be done.
“We need far more sanctuary areas for sharks and rays, especially where they breed.”
Andrea Marshall agrees.
“The priority must be the creation and management of large marine protected areas,” she said. “The ocean is resilient but there is also a point of no return and we are fast approaching it.”
Countries like Mozambique, she added, “cannot do it alone.”