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Asian markets demand for fins drives decimation of Ecuador’s shark species

Published on March 08, 2022

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 In 2021, shark fin exports from Ecuador tripled compared to the average of the last eight years.

Sharks have a bad reputation. The spectacle of these fish in film and television consists of showing a terrifying animal with sharp fangs that mutilates and devours bathers on the peaceful beaches of some fictional place. But that is a disproportionate representation.

In nearly 90 years, South America has recorded only 129 shark attacks, 12 of them in Ecuador, according to the University of Florida International Shark Attack File.

And what most people don’t know is that sharks are one of the most vulnerable animals in the ocean. Proof of this is that 17 species are in danger of extinction.

Of the 400 species of sharks that exist in the world, only 38 are still found in Ecuadorian waters, even though directed shark fishing is prohibited in Ecuador.

In 2007, the State established, by means of a decree, that the meat and fins of these fish can only be commercialized when they are caught incidentally – when they are fished by accident during efforts to catch other fish such as tuna, for example.

Despite this prohibition, shark fishing has not been reduced after the decree entered into force, on the contrary, the export of shark fins has increased.

Between January and September 2021, according to data from the National Customs Service of Ecuador, exports of shark fins —obtained through bycatch— increased exponentially compared to the last eight years. In 2020, 82.18 tons of shark fins worth $2.9 million dollars were exported; in the first nine months of 2021, the figure tripled, and 223 tons worth $6.5 million dollars were exported.

But the most paradoxical thing about these latest exports of 2021 is that 78% of them —174 tons of fins that are equivalent to more than 200 thousand sharks— correspond to four species that are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that seeks to regulate the commercialization of certain species to ensure that they are conserved in nature.

These are the pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus), the shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)—considered Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and the bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus), both of which are in the ‘Vulnerable’ category.

The legal loopholes that trigger exports

The journey of these four shark species begins in the calm waters of one of the most important natural sanctuaries in the world: the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Inside these limits, sharks are protected, but once they cross the border to begin their migration to different places on the continental coast, the die is cast. Nets and hooks could catch them at any moment.

When that happens, the meat and fins of those animals that are protected by CITES may be exported as long as certain requirements are met. First, the trader must request a special permit from the CITES authority in his country. In the case of Ecuador, for the permit to be approved, the CITES authority, which is housed in the Ministry of the Environment, will have to make sure that the fishing was incidental, and that the commercialization of these fish will not negatively affect the species. The problem is that, in Ecuador, there are legal loopholes that prevent the authority from ensuring that these two requirements are actually met.

The prohibition in Ecuador of directed fishing for sharks and the exception of being able to commercialize them if they are caught incidentally, has been in force for 15 years.

However, the Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fisheries of Ecuador only officially signed the Regulations of the Organic Law for the Development of Aquaculture and Fisheries on February 25, 2022.

Unfortunately, the regulation does not establish the maximum percentage of shark fishing that can be considered as incidental. Establishing this figure is urgent since experts say that under the excuse of incidentality, thousands of sharks continue to be captured in Ecuador.

“It is necessary, and we have been emphatic that these parameters and these quantities be defined in order to know if the incidentality is fulfilled or not,” says David Veintimilla, specialist engineer in Protected Areas and CITES authority in the Ministry of Environment.

In September 2021, the Deputy Minister of Fisheries, Andrés Arens, was questioned by Gustavo Redín, president of the Ecuadorian Coordination of Organizations for the Defense of Nature and the Environment (Cedenma), who criticized the fact that one year after the approval of the Fisheries Law, there is still not a regulation that has been issued detailing the limits of bycatch. Arens replied that he “hoped that in the coming weeks” the regulations would be ready to be sent to the Presidency.

“I hope in a few weeks to have news about the imposition of incident limits that can be used to better control,” he said.

Five months later a regulation was signed, but it does not establish limits, but rather derives responsibility from another institution.

The new rule says that “in the case of landings that contain bycatch, this must be declared based on the permissibility indices established in the Aquaculture and Fisheries Management Plan, by fishery, and based on scientific criteria established by the Public Institute of Aquaculture and Fisheries Research. The permissibility indices established by the Institute must consider application criteria and will be reviewed periodically by the Institute in order to guarantee the sustainability of fishing.”Top of Form

Regarding the second requirement, the one that requires verifying that the commercialization of a shark protected by CITES does not endanger the survival of the species, the countries that wish to export it, in this case Ecuador, must carry out a scientific study on its population called Opinion Non-Detrimental Extraction (DENP). If said study gives a positive result (NDF), then the species may be exported, otherwise its commercialization will be prohibited.

But for shark conservation to be effective, it is not enough for NDFs to be positive, but rather they should determine a limit on how many animals can be exported, that is, a quota. This is what experts say and even CITES itself recognizes that “the use of export quotas has become an effective instrument to regulate international trade in wild fauna and flora species.”

However, the Convention does not oblige countries to establish quotas, although it does recommend it. Neither Ecuador nor any of the 193 countries adhering to CITES have established export quotas for silky, pelagic thresher, bigeye thresher and shortfin mako sharks.

Thus, although none of these four species has shown signs of recovery in recent years, and rather in certain cases the situation has worsened, such as that of the short-finned mako, which passed in 2019 from the category of Vulnerable to Endangered according to the list IUCN red flag, exports have skyrocketed.

César Ipenza, a lawyer specializing in environmental matters, says a non-harmful extraction opinion that does not include a quota “does not comply” with the objective of the CITES agreement that regulates the extraction of resources to prevent their overexploitation.

“This creates a tremendous problem. If there is no export quota, I may be taking out the same resource that is in a vulnerable level and destroying it, putting it in even greater danger,” he says.

Without a limit that regulates the issuance of CITES permits and without a quota that determines how much fishing can be considered incidental, threatened and supposedly protected sharks are increasingly exported. According to the information provided by the Ministry of the Environment, in 2020, 9 CITES permits were issued for the export of shark fins and bodies, while between January and September 2021, 89 were issued.

“Everyone wants to blame CITES,” says Ipenza, but the truth is that the Convention only does “what the countries allow,” says the expert. In CITES, member countries decide what conservation actions should be taken and whether they should be mandatory or not. There is no committee superior to the States that can determine the most effective methods to protect species, explains Ipenza.

“If the countries have diverse interests in the resources, they are hardly going to make the agreement fulfill that role (of conserving),” he adds.

China and Hong Kong drive market

The pelagic thresher, bigeye thresher, mako, and silky thresher share several characteristics. At night they come to the surface, they are highly mobile, they enjoy the warm waters, and they are four of the five most sought-after shark species in international markets, according to Pablo Guerrero, the director of WWF Marine Landscape Conservation for Ecuador. What Guerrero said coincides with the investigations carried out by the Colombian scientist Diego Cardeñosa, who took DNA samples from shark fins that are sold in the markets of Hong Kong and Guangzhou to determine which endangered species were being commercialized.

Official statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimate that shark fin imports by China and Hong Kong between 2000 and 2011— the main buyers of fins — represented a value of $4.2 billion. According to the FAO, dry shark fins can reach prices greater than $100 dollars/kilo.

Lack of control a big part of the problem

Of the 89 permits that the CITES authority in Ecuador issued between January and September 2021 to export shark parts, 29 correspond to pelagic thresher, bigeye, silky and mako thresher fins. Of these permits, 17 —more than half— were delivered to just two companies: nine to Solórzano & Ávila Exportadora del Mar Evverfish and eight to Fish Choez y Villegas Exportadora de Productos de Mar. The latter has been identified as the exporter that sent 26 tons of shark fins to Hong Kong, which were seized in April 2020 by the Chinese authorities and which three months later they tried to launder by requesting a CITES permit that justified the illegal export.

The lack of control is one of the main concerns of shark conservation activists. Cristina Cely is director of the environmental organization One Health Ecuador and managed to get the National Assembly to discuss the temporary ban on commercializing shark bycatch, although in the end the proposal was not approved by Ecuadorian legislators. Cely says that the increase in fin exports is due to the fact that shark fishing has been encouraged and she maintains that not only is the capture of these species questioned, “but we are also talking about trafficking.”

On February 9th, the Peruvian justice system sentenced shark fin traffickers for the first time. The sentence ordered four and a half years in prison and a civil compensation of 106,375 soles (about $28,000) against the deputy manager of the company Ajansa Peru (owner of the shipment) and the buyer Poly Diks Pinto Gonzáles. In 2018, those sentenced had trafficked, from Ecuador, 1.8 tons of fins from different shark species, including pelagic thresher, common hammerhead, smooth and silky shark. All threatened with extinction and protected by CITES.

But that is just one of several seizures that have been made in Peru of fins or bodies of sharks from Ecuador. In the last one, in July 2021, the Peruvian authorities seized 416 hammerhead sharks despite the fact that the capture of this species —even incidental— and its commercialization has been prohibited since 2020 in Ecuador.

For some time now, Peru has been identified as one of the main routes through which sharks from Ecuador are sold to the Asian market and, as the figures show, the trend continues. A report by Ojo Público revealed that “what was exported from Ecuador to Peru between 2020 and 2021 (412 tons), represents 62% of everything exported by Peru in this same period (660 tons).”

Although the National Customs Service is in charge of verifying if the shark fins that are sent to other countries correspond to the species that are declared before the CITES authority, on some occasions the customs controls are not effective due to inexperience or corruption among customs officials, according to an Insight Crime analysis of the case of the 26 shark fins illegally exported from Ecuador. According to Veintimilla, the CITES authority in Ecuador, this makes the verifications carried out by the Ministry of Production of landings even more crucial.

When the fishermen arrive at port, an inspector from the Ministry of Production reviews and notes the amount and type of fish landed. They are the ones who must assess whether shark fishing was incidental or directed, explains Bruno Leone, president of the Ecuadorian Chamber of Fisheries.

Government seems uninterested in problem

Given the increase in exports of shark fins, Veintimilla asked the Ecuadorian Ministry of Production for information on the total catches of shark species made in 2021.

“What we want is precisely to be able to identify landings to know how much was landed from sharks versus the fishing they had been carrying out (…) If (the boats) arrived with 80% sharks and 20% other species, we are not talking about incidental fishing there, even though there is still no regulation,” he explains.

Despite the fact that Veintimilla made the request to the Ministry of Production in September 2021, to date he has not received any response.

In 2018, the WWF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration delivered materials and equipment to the Undersecretary of Fishery Resources of the Ministry of Aquaculture and Fisheries, for the re-equipment of the shark DNA laboratory, located in the facilities of the San Mateo Artisanal Fishing Port, in Manabi. The purpose of the DNA laboratory was to improve, in the short term, the controls, tracking and identification of shark species whose fins and other products are exported, through genetic techniques. However, in 2020, WWF in Ecuador requested that the shark DNA laboratory of the Undersecretary of Fisheries be reactivated after it was closed that same year due to lack of supplies.

Bigeye thresher, pelagic thresher, shortfin mako and silky sharks move between the Galapagos Islands. The silky usually transits between Darwin and Wolf Islands, according to Alex Hearn, a doctor in marine biology and professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Silky sharks are the second most caught species in the world.

Although these sharks swim in the safe waters of the Galapagos, because they enjoy the warm waters that are the average temperature of a heated pool, they usually move out to sea and towards the coasts of mainland Ecuador to feed. Hearn says that for these four species of sharks there are bycacht zones (as incidental fishing is called): the southwest of the Galapagos Islands, the maritime alley that forms between the exclusive economic zones of continental and insular Ecuador, on the fringe of the Carnegie submarine ridge and to the south of continental Ecuador. In a nutshell, outside the limit of the Galapagos reserve, sharks have little chance of surviving, reproducing and continuing to add more individuals to their species.

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