Sharks: “Ravaged by fishing and lack of information”

A WWF study says that between 2012 and 2019, $1.5 billion was generated from the global shark fin trade. There are no specific figures on Ecuador but it is known that its capture and commercialization continues illegally. What is the country doing to protect the shark?

Mayuri Castro · July 26, 2021

Hammerhead sharks. Photograph taken from the WWF website.

Between 2012 and 2019, the global shark fin trade generated $1.5 billion. This is the main data of an analysis of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, for its acronym in English), published on July 14, 2021. The report does not detail how many of those millions of dollars were originated by fishing for shark in Ecuador. In the country, there are also no clear figures on the catches of these species – several of them in danger of extinction. The only clear thing is that their fishing (on paper, considered illegal) has not stopped.

In Ecuador, shark fishing is almost totally prohibited. According to an executive decree signed by then-President Rafael Correa, fishing gear and systems designed to catch sharks are banned. The practice known as “finning” is prohibited, which is cutting off the fins and discarding the body (the fin is like the navigation system of sharks: without it, they fall disoriented and drown on the seabed). 

There is only one exception: if the shark is caught “incidentally” it can be sold. And it is in that exception where everything falls apart. Bycatch – in theory – is the involuntary capture of species with fishing gear or systems that are used for the voluntary and planned capture of other species. For example, it can occur when a shark gets caught in a net that is in the sea, supposedly to catch tuna. According to the decree, those caught incidentally must be used in their entirety and must be sold in their entirety (not the separated fins), only by those who have a marketing and export permit issued by the Ministry of the Environment.

Incidentally, in the world, 38.5 million species are caught that should not end up in fishing boats […] In Ecuador, the decree is part of a gray area, says Xavier Romero, a marine biologist with more than 40 years of experience, “because although there is a ban, in Ecuador there is targeted shark fishing that is disguised as incidental.” 

The regulatory attempt of 2007 remains, 14 years later, the hook with which illegal fishing continues to catch sharks and, at the same time, its legalistic lifeline. Romero says that fishing should be prohibited at times of the year when sharks migrate because they always do so in groups and that is when it is easier for them to fall into fishing gear. Fishermen, Romero explains, supposedly go out to fish for tuna or dorado just at this time when it is easier to catch [sharks]. 

“Definitely in continental Ecuador there is a fishery directed at sharks,” says Luis Suárez, executive director of Conservation International Ecuador, an NGO dedicated to the conservation of ecosystems to ensure human well-being. Bycatch, says Suárez, is the excuse that encourages shark fishing, which is not controlled by the state due to the lack of fisheries inspectors in ports (who should make sure that sharks are not caught). Suárez affirms that this control should also be done in consensus with Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru, countries where sharks also transit.  

Fishing in the continental area, 2019.

WWF analysis also says that more than 200 countries are importing and exporting shark meat. Ecuador appears as an exporter to Peru, the study does not detail whether legally or illegally. “We Ecuadorians have become illegal exporters of shark meat and fins,” says Walter Bustos, former director of the Galapagos National Park , whose marine reserve is a sanctuary for these animals . It is also an area in constant threat from the indiscriminate industrial fishing that stalks the rich reserve.  

This fishing is illegally distributed all over the planet. In early May 2020, a shipment of 26 tons of shark fins from Ecuador arrived to Hong Kong, it is not known if they were captured near Galapagos or in continental waters (between the Galapagos marine reserve and the Ecuadorian territorial sea there are a strip of international waters that has become a booty for fishing boats). 

According to the Chinese media South China Morning Post, those fins were taken from 38,500 sharks. Hong Kong customs authorities seized the shipment that represented the largest fin seizure to date. The fins had been shipped as sun-dried fish meat. If it had not been for the authorities of the Asian city, in Ecuador we would never have heard of the massive predation of those more than 38 thousand sharks. 

In January 2020, during the Lenín Moreno government, the Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fisheries created the National Action Plan for the Conservation and Management of Sharks in Ecuador (PAT-EC) . On paper, it sounds like an ambitious and timely plan. 

One of its goals is to minimize bycatch. The plan promises to improve the law related to fishing, control landings and discards, register vessels and fishermen, carry out training programs and improve fishing gear. It sounds incredible, like most of the Ecuadorian environmental regulations. However, until the closing of this report, we had no response to the request for an interview with the Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fisheries to find out how the fulfillment of this plan is progressing. 

In Ecuador, there is also no official information on how many tons are produced by incidental fishing, and there is no figure for how many sharks are caught in this type of fishing. “There is only anecdotal information about what is seen in ports or fishing coves,” says Suárez. The coves are geographical areas where there is fishing activity. Updated and contextualized public information is essential to understand what is happening to sharks and to be able to take appropriate measures for their conservation. 

David Veintimilla, specialist in protected areas of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, said that in some artisanal vessels there are “observers on board” from the Ministry of Production to identify or verify that there is no directed capture of sharks. They also do the control when disembarking, they make sure that the boats do not have shark fins, they review the dry product to verify that what they want to market has the permits, but “the Ministry of the Environment does not intervene because it does not have trained personnel for that.” Luis Suarez says that in recent years fishing inspectors have increased in ports, “but it is still insufficient.”

Veintimilla says that only the Ministry of the Environment can issue permits for the export of shark meat. And he adds that sharks can be commercialized and exported under certain conditions established by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The specialist explains that the Ministry of the Environment coordinates with the Undersecretariat of Fisheries Resources – of the Ministry of Production – so that what is stated in Decree 486 and the international agreements or conventions, of which Ecuador is a party, is complied with to protect these animals. One of these is CITES, an international agreement so that the world trade in wild animals and plants is not a threat to the survival of these species.  According to Veintimilla, the Ministry of the Environment also coordinates with the National Institute for Aquaculture and Fisheries Research (IPIAP) which, through its annual investigations, determines that the incidental capture of a certain species of shark does not harm the maritime populations of others. 

CITES protects more than 37 thousand species of animals and plants and has three different degrees of protection, called appendices. More than a dozen species of sharks are in Appendix 2 which means they are not necessarily endangered but could get to that point. Trade in the species in Appendix 2 is allowed but must be reviewed, says the Convention. In Ecuador, according to decree 486, commercialization is allowed to those who have a permit, but everything indicates that this revision is not completed. 

The shark is a top species in the food chain. It is the regulatory species of the populations of the oceans. According to the article Shark trafficking in Latin America: Ecuador and Peru are in the crosshairs, sharks have a slow growth, a late sexual age and a low fertility, therefore, if they are overfished, they can be in danger of extinction.

If bycatch remains the gray area that it is, the danger to sharks increases. Biologist Xavier Romero says that without this dominant species, in 15 to 20 years the marine food chain could be altered. “If there are no sharks, some species will increase their population and this would cause a significant ocean imbalance,” explains Walter Bustos. The International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN ) says that  the giant hammerhead shark ( Sphyrna mokarran ), the common hammerhead shark ( Sphyrna lewini ) are species listed as “endangered”. The smooth hammerhead shark ( Sphyrna zygaena ), the great white shark ( Carcharodon carcharias), the basking shark ( Cetorhinus maximus ) and the oceanic whitetip ( Carcharhinus longimanus ) and three species of thresher shark ( Alopias spp ) are considered “vulnerable to extinction”. 

Fishing in the continental area, 2019. Photo courtesy of Xavier Romero.

But the food danger is not only in the sea, but also on the tables. Eating shark meat can make humans sick because their meat accumulates heavy metals: sharks feed on all the meat that exists in the oceans and that creates a process of bioaccumulation – that is, a small fish concentrates a certain amount of heavy metals that we humans dump it into the oceans. Then a bigger fish eats it and so [the heavy metals] move to the top of the [food] chain. “All this accumulates in the meat of the fish and the great bioaccumulator ends up being the shark, making it bad meat,” explains Walter Bustos. This excess of heavy metals can damage the human liver. 

The situation of sharks in Ecuador is a question that doubles as a hook. Experts agree that the State does not dedicate concrete actions to protect them. Luis Suárez says that it is necessary for the Ministries of Environment and Production to convene a group of experts on the subject to analyze the situation and make drastic decisions, such as a total ban on the export of shark fins or a ban on shark fishing, which today can be met by fulfilling certain conditions imposed by the 2007 decree. 

In addition, the country needs strong institutions that have the capacity to control and sanction, and that invest resources well. For Suárez, director of Conservation International Ecuador, it is important that prosecutors and judges punish environmental crimes when it comes to protected species such as the shark. 

For the cargo that arrived in Hong Kong in June 2021 , the Ministry of Production sanctioned a person designated as responsible for sending the cargo of fins, “with the maximum allowed by law,” says a publication of the newspaper El Universo. A publication on Twitter from the Ministry of Production says that illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing is sanctioned with a maximum fine of $700,000.  But no criminal sanctions have yet been applied. According to the Comprehensive Organic Penal Code , crimes against endangered, endangered and migratory species of flora and fauna that are protected at the local or international level are punishable by 1 to 3 years in prison. Walter Bustos says a tougher law is needed to cast doubt on entering the global shark trade. 

Until the government can better patrol and identify illegal fishing, make a drastic decision to ban all shark commercialization, and a time comes when prosecutors and judges enforce the law rigorously, sharks will continue to swim in seas of many uncertainties, falling on the hook that could lead to their extinction. 

Read the original coverage from GK at https://gk.city/2021/07/26/tiburones-ecuador/


Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2021

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