Fifteen years or so ago, local fishermen who ventured off the coast of Liberia could expect to come back with 200, maybe 300, of the fish in their boats, 45-year-old George Toe recalls.
Those were the good old days, when catching a couple of sharks helped fill a fisherman’s pocket and fed a hungry family.
“Now it is difficult to get even 10,” he says. “Now you have to go 45 miles (72 kilometres) in the water before you meet up with any.”
Toe’s worry encapsulates the dilemma facing Liberia, an ex-colony of former Caribbean slaves and their free descendants, as it seeks to protect these beautiful, endangered but often under-estimated species.
Each year, tens of millions of sharks and rays are hauled from the sea, typically to meet a particularly high demand in East and Southeast Asia for shark fin soup or products used in traditional medicine.
Experts say the plunder is having a devastating effect on the health of the sea — but protecting the species often meets resistance from fishermen, who see the catch as a vital source of income.
Fishing provides a livelihood to more than 30,000 people in Liberia and accounts for two-thirds of all animal proteins consumed nationally.
What’s at stake in shark and ray conservation is not just the survival of these ancient species but supporting commercial fish stocks.
“Loss of sharks can lead to dramatic imbalances in the ecosystem,” says campaign group Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
Catching sharks ricochets down the food chain as big fish decimate small fish in the absence of the apex predator.
Under a three-year initiative, the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority will collect data on shark and ray populations, monitoring their numbers and location, and track fishing, both legal and illegal.
The action follows a pledge on training and data collection that Liberia made with 12 other West African countries in 2014 to help shark and ray conservation.
A trial programme has recorded 19 species in Liberian waters, from great hammerhead sharks to devil rays.
All feature on the Red List of threatened species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sharks and rays are particularly vulnerable as they grow slowly, hit sexual maturity late and have a low reproductive rate, according to the EJF.
“Accurate population monitoring and sustainable management of these species are essential for long-term solutions, both for the Liberian fishing community and for the ecosystem they depend on,” said Emma Glassco, head of the fisheries agency.