by Sarah Blaskey / © 2018, Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
It was billed as the biggest poaching bust in history.
An Ecuadorean Navy patrol vessel bore down on a ship the length of a football field making a beeline across the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Filling the freighter’s freezers: 150 tons of dead sharks, most endangered and illegal to sell.
Only small pieces off those 6,000 carcasses were actually of much value: the fins.
The crisis in Central America and beyond
Shark poaching happens everywhere, but it’s the Pacific Ocean off Central America that has become ground zero in the battle to protect sharks. Even here—by many measures the richest shark waters on the planet—biologists fear relentless overfishing could spiral populations of species into irreversible collapse and take the entire marine food chain down with them.
Globally, a quarter of shark and ray species are considered threatened. Scientists agree if nothing changes, some species may go extinct in our lifetimes.
Many protections have been implemented by countries in the Americas. Yet an analysis of U.N. trade data suggests exports of shark products from Central America have nearly doubled since 2012.
“They always find the loopholes,” said [Costa Rican shark conservationist Randall Arauz].
While “finning” is illegal, for example, the fins themselves are still legal in most of the world, so long as the entire shark body is brought to land with fins attached.
International trade in shark products has become the quintessential gray market. Lack of regulation and enforcement makes legal and illegal products blend into an impossible-to-separate quagmire.
A predicament for local fisherman
Tougher rules in countries like Costa Rica haven’t curbed rampant overfishing, but they have crippled local fishermen, the ones most motivated to play by the rules and the easiest to monitor. People whose income depends on sharks tend to want shark populations to remain healthy.
Local fleets are forced to throw back a big chunk of the catch because some sharks are illegal to export.
“The other [international] boats kill everything and keep it all,” [said lifelong Costa Rican shark fisherman Sergio Soto Pena], bothered by the waste.
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