How furtive fishing ends with the greatest predator of the seas in the Central American Pacific. Part of the shark fin trade goes through Miami.
MANTA, ECUADOR – It was said to be the greatest triumph against poaching, a monumental victory for conservationists.
A patrol boat of the Ecuadorian Navy, guided by an advanced radar and a small plane, approached a fishing vessel in the Galápagos Marine Reserve, probably the most protected waters in the world. In the coolers of the boat, they found 150 tonnes of sharks, most of them endangered species and whose sale is illegal.
The interesting thing is that only the fins of those sharks have any value.
Shark fins are a delicacy in China, the main ingredient of the soup that is served at expensive banquets and restaurants. At certain times, dried shark fins have sold more expensive than heroin. That price, coupled with the high demand in a developing Chinese economy, has created a brutally efficient industry capable of killing sharks.
With towing technology in which the lines are 75 miles long, commercial shark fishermen catch hundreds of them at once. Every year tens of millions of sharks are caught worldwide and some scientists have estimated that the figure exceeds 100 million.
But furtive shark fishing occurs everywhere, from Florida to French Polynesia, but the Central American coasts on the Pacific have become the zero point of the battle to preserve the sharks. Even here – probably the most shark waters on the planet – biologists fear that overfishing could wipe out the population of the most wanted species, lead to irreversible collapse and fatally affect the marine food chain.
The big question is what will disappear first, the sharks or the fin trade.
“At the moment it’s a very closed race,” said Ben Harris, director of the Panamanian chapter of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who has spent decades chasing sharks’ poachers in Central American marine reserves.
This two-year investigation, initially published by Reveal , a radio and podcast program supported by the Center for Investigative Journalism, found that despite stricter protections implemented by many countries, international trade in shark products remains strong in the Eastern Pacific Reporting work in port locations in five countries, from Ecuador to El Salvador, showed that in some cases new laws intended to reduce shark killing seem to have had the opposite effect.
“It’s a real war,” said Jessie Treverton, former M / V captain John Paul DeJoria, a former US Navy patrol boat turned now using the Sea Shepherd organization. The ship, which has painted huge shark teeth, patrolling the area of marine reserves in early 2017, and his crew of volunteers tried forces with poachers and sometimes they cut the fishing lines in an effort to protect sharks. “We are dealing with governments, with cartels that earn large amounts of money by exploiting marine ecosystems.”
The arrest last August of the freighter Fu Yuan Leng 999 by the Ecuadorian Navy in the Galapagos was applauded in conservation circles.
But reality proved to be much more complicated – like the shark fishing industry itself – and the case of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng only underscored the enormous challenge of controlling fleets of poachers.
Win a battle, lose the war
It turned out that the freighter’s crew, which is still held in Ecuador, were not technically poachers, not even shark fishers. They were simply transporters, in charge of collecting what other vessels had fished in the Pacific and carrying the cargo to the port in a country with less strict laws on sharks. The crew’s testimony suggested that they were involuntary traffickers, easily replaceable pawns in an industry that often trades human beings to enslave them and obscures the ultimate responsibility for environmental destruction under layers of ghost companies.
For the commercial interests that benefit most from the trade in shark fins, the case of the ship stopped in the Galapagos was a lost battle in a war that continues to win. The cargo of Fu Yuan Yu Leng represented a very small portion of the world shark fishery, which according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has an annual value of almost $ 1 billion.
“We have not done anything to face the [poaching] fishery,” said Randall Arauz, a Costa Rican conservationist who has spent years pushing for more rules to protect sharks.
At least half a dozen shark species are considered critically endangered in all seas of the world, and many more in specific regions. Worldwide, a quarter of shark and ray species are considered threatened. Although the numbers vary between conservation agencies and government entities, scientists agree that if nothing changes, some species may disappear before long.
Many countries in the Americas with coasts on the Pacific have implemented protections to try to control the situation. All have banned the practice of fishing sharks to cut their live fins and return them to the sea, where they bleed and die. Throughout the world, 182 countries and the European Union have signed agreements that prohibit the export of certain threatened species. And more and more countries are establishing marine reserves where fishing is prohibited, such as Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica.
However, an analysis of the UN trade information suggests that the export of shark products from Central America has almost doubled since 2012, suggesting that despite the rules, more sharks are being caught.
“They will always find legal gaps,” said Arauz. National and international laws do not have much uniformity, which allows sharks to continue fishing.
Although fishing for sharks only to remove fins is illegal, the fins themselves are legal in most parts of the world as long as the entire shark is landed without being cut. The fins -most of the species have eight- can be cut on land provided they are not of an internationally regulated species because they are threatened, and can be exported.
Of all the countries of the Eastern Pacific, only Ecuador totally prohibits shark fishing, although it makes it possible to land sharks caught accidentally. But Ecuador has never established a limit to the amount of “accidental” catch so that fishermen catch as many sharks as they want and in practice, nothing happens.
International trade in shark products has become the gray market par excellence, where the lack of regulation and compliance makes it almost impossible to separate legal products from illegal ones.
Chaos in the Central American Pacific
The research, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the School of Journalism at Columbia University, also identified that some protection measures, such as stricter inspections in ports, ended up causing the main operators of shark fishing – industrial fleets with a global reach – will go deeper into the seas. Now they touch land much less frequently and when they do it is in remote places where there is little vigilance over what they fish (possibly protected species) and where (possibly in furtive activities in marine reserves).
The result is that operations with the worst reputation are now harder to track and monitor, and much more difficult to prosecute for infractions.
“The real problem is now on the high seas because these vessels operate almost freely,” said Arauz. Today most shark fishing occurs in international waters, where the status of endangered species does not prevent fishing. And even where there are laws, there is usually no one to enforce them.
At sea, ships are subject to the laws of their flag country. Many times, fishing companies use the flag of a country far from where they fish, which ensures little or no supervision of their operations. That flag makes the ship a sovereign territory in international waters, so that the authorities of any other nation that board the ship are in fact invading another country, something that most coastal and marine guards are careful to do.
The Fu Yuan Yu Leng was registered in China. The legal documents show that the captain said the ship was heading to Peru, a nation known for its weak enforcement activities in ports. But, in practice, it could have been directed to several unregulated ports in many parts, from Africa to Asia. And he would have escaped with his illegal cargo if he had not entered the waters of a supervised marine reserve.
An example is a Central American fleet owned by the Wang Group, a network of ghost companies operated by three Taiwanese brothers in Costa Rica. Despite its environmental reputation, Costa Rica has long been considered the regional trade capital of shark products and annually exports half a million fins, according to government data. Foreign fleets, such as Wang’s, have been responsible for a disproportionate number of catches.
When Arauz and other environmentalists pressured the government to take action – prompting new laws that effectively banned the Wang Group’s boats that capture 60,000 sharks a year – the fleet simply stopped bringing its catch to Costa Rica.
“Now they are going to El Salvador and Guatemala, where everything is easier,” said Arauz
The Wang Group now sends its sharks to a port in El Salvador, where enforcement is less strict. Nearly 7 percent of the regional shark trade changed to El Salvador at the same time.
“In El Salvador the biggest problem is violence, and it is also the second and third biggest problem,” said Salvadoran conservationist Luis “Fox” Aguilar, adding that local activists do not know much about international fleets, so he doubts someone to regulate them
The tougher rules in countries like Costa Rica, for example, have not controlled overfishing in the region, but have created great difficulties for local fishermen, who are more motivated to obey the new rules and are the easiest to monitor People who depend on sharks for a living want the population of these fish to stay healthy.
“There is a small group of local shark fishermen who want to do things well. I consider myself part of them, “said Costa Rican Sergio Soto Peña. “Everyone has his passion, and mine is fishing.”
Like most fishermen, Soto has hooked scars on his forearms during many years of work in rough waters.
Although activists like Arauz do not like it, the three Soto fishing boats are somewhat small compared to international fleets. Many Costa Rican fishermen say they are willing to support some regulations, such as catch limits. But Costa Rica has eliminated quotas in favour of completely banning the export of certain species.
Thus, the local fleets are forced to return to the sea a good part of the fish they catch because some sharks cannot be exported and therefore are worthless. Among those are the hammerhead and other protected species, although when they put it on the ship they are already dead.
“There is a small group of local fishermen who want to do things well … Everyone has their passion, and mine is fishing.”
Soto Peña says that the prohibition of fishing for certain shark species has caused many artisanal fishing operations to have to close and that extreme policies do not really save sharks.
“We can not take many species ashore, but [international] ships capture everything and keep it,” he said.
Soto Peña adds that the fishing industry is the one that causes the greatest damage, both environmental and social. Some of the large shark fishing vessels use crews of vulnerable migrants with no local links. The ships remain at sea at the same time, invisible to the radar, and depend on other vessels to bring them fuel, victuals and transfer the captured cargo to port, like the ship captured in the Galapagos. And the men who work in the fishing boats are as disposable as the crew that is serving sentences for environmental crimes in Ecuador.
“I do not think about that [the environmental consequences],” said Thong Cao, a Vietnamese fisherman who says he simply does what he’s ordered. He and many others in his fleet were considered “personnel likely to be victims of human trafficking” by a UN agency. Cao said that when he signed the contract to work on the ship with an employment agency in Vietnam, he did not know that they were going to send him to Central America to catch sharks, nor that he would spend more than a year on the high seas without seeing the mainland, transferring the catch to other ships that took her ashore in El Salvador.
Local fishing boats and international vessels that do not obey the law sometimes fight in the sea. The crews of the big ships have cut Soto Peña’s lines in international waters, he said, they have rammed their boats and generally tried to get them out of the fishing areas.
“In Costa Rica there are regulations, but who regulates those ships?” He asked. The answer is almost nobody. While exports of shark products from Costa Rica continue to decline, at the regional level they continue to rise.
From predators feared to protected species
More than four decades after the movie Shark Bloody presented the sharks as monsters capable of devouring ships and men, scientists and conservation groups have worked hard to change that perception among the public. An international campaign for the protection of sharks has been a huge public relations success. Some conservation groups have even noticed a decline in the demand for shark fins in Asia, at a time when campaigns have managed to modify the food choices of many young people. The price of the fins has stabilized at approximately $ 100 per pound. And shark fin soup is now banned at official banquets in China.
There has also been an important cultural change in states such as Florida, where the waters on both sides of the peninsula are full of sharks. State authorities have banned the fishing of 26 species, including hammerheads and tiger sharks.
Compliance monitoring activities have also increased. Lately, there have been several cases of detention of poachers in Florida. Last year they arrested several when the authorities found 11 shark fins on a ship.
Twelve states and three US territories have banned the possession of shark fins, among the strictest rules in the world. Florida is not one of them, although the proposal has been presented in the Legislature several times and groups like Oceana supported a federal initiative to ban the trade in shark fins.
“They are killing too many sharks. … The only thing that can save the sharks now is to stop killing them.”
Despite all that progress in regional protection, Florida is now the largest importer of shark fins in the United States, according to Oceana. And shark fins from Central America often pass through the Miami International Airport to Hong Kong, according to information provided by the private aggregator ImportGenius. But it was not always like this. For years, Los Angeles and then Houston were the main transit points for fins from Central America. But when Texas and California tightened the rules, exports moved to Florida.
Between 2015 and mid-2017, Costa Rican companies moved 180,000 pounds of dried shark fins through the Miami International Airport to Asia through two small logistics firms, with a value of almost $ 2.5 million.
It is almost impossible to know if some of the shark fins that passed through Miami were of threatened species. But an independent 2017 analysis of fins imported by Hong Kong suggests that one-third of the fins were of internationally protected species. Arauz and his team have documented several shipments of hammerhead fins from Costa Rica, probably bound for Asia across the United States, a violation of international treaties.
In March, Senator Marco Rubio, along with Rep. Daniel Webster, two Florida Republicans, and California Democrat Ted Lieu, introduced a bill on fisheries and trade in shark products. The initiative requires any country that wants to export shark products to the United States to demonstrate that they were caught in a legal, sustainable manner and were taken to ports with due compliance mechanisms, certified by the National Atmosphere and Oceans Administration (NOAA) ).
The bill has been praised by fishermen and conservationists alike, who say that a well-regulated and sustainable fish market is more effective than bans. But many others think that the time to reach an agreement with the fishing sector has passed.
“They kill too many sharks,” said Arauz. “The only thing that can save the sharks now is to stop killing them.”
The race against extinction
According to the most important measurement, the protection of sharks is still insufficient. The population of many species continues to decline and every year more species are added to the threatened list.
Hammerhead sharks, which are kept near the coasts, were among the first to be victims of overfishing and were included in the list of threatened species. As they have moved offshore, migratory sharks have become the new targets and are also on the list of endangered species.
“We have a much less efficient ecosystem,” said marine biologist Jon Witman of Brown University, who conducts research in the Galapagos. In essence, he said, without sharks the marine food chain could be seriously affected.
It is called trophic behaviour cascade. “Large predators can change the behaviour of a species from which they feed,” Witman said. “The herbivore feeds less because it feels threatened.”
For example, he said that in Australia the presence of large sharks near the coasts means that manatees do not approach shallow waters and eat too much. Seagrass is an important area for the development of a wide range of marine life, and its excess consumption could threaten species whose reproductive cycle depends on it.
Although the specifics of the interaction between species in a complex ecosystem is an active field of study, scientists agree that the health of the seas depends on the health of the shark population.
“Sharks have a very important role in marine ecosystems because they maintain balance, they maintain the permanent balance of biodiversity,” said Danny Rueda, director of Ecosystems at the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
Rueda said that even with the lowest standards, shark populations would take decades to recover due to the slowness with which they mature. However, Witman and Rueda noted that since the implementation of a strict ban on shark fishing in the Galápagos Marine Reserve, the shark population seems to be recovering within protected areas.
“It is very likely that the sharks we see here would not have seen them 15 years ago,” Rueda said. “There has also been an increase in control, a strengthening of park rules so that there is no illegal fishing of sharks.”
Source: El Nuevo Herald