The fight for fins
“Today, everything is overfished.”
I was born in Los Angeles California, a son of Costa Rican immigrants. I was raised next to the ocean, in a town called Manhattan Beach. I would spend the summers at the beach, but what really inspired me to protect the ocean was watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Thanks to Cousteau, I have been aware of overfishing and the way we endanger the ocean’s inhabitants from a very early age.
When I first started my marine conservation career, I was predominantly a sea turtle biologist. It was evident that fisheries-induced sea turtle mortality posed the greatest threat to their conservation. While studying the impact of shrimp trawl operations on sea turtles during the 1990s, the fishermen themselves tipped me off to take a closer look at the longline industry. ‘They kill more turtles than we do’, was their main claim. Declining trends of leatherback sea turtle populations in the Eastern Pacific coincided with increasing longline fishing effort, but no direct connection had been made.
In 1997, just after I’d founded the Association for the Restoration of Sea Turtles (PRETOMA), my colleague Roberto Vargas got a job as a cook onboard a longline vessel for several weeks and asked us to equip him with a video camera. The footage he brought back was appalling. Two young critically endangered leatherback sea turtles were hooked on the longlines, as well as a sea lion. At the very end of the video, the fishers haul up a blue shark, they hack off the fins while the animal is struggling in pain and agony, and then it is thrown back, still alive, into the ocean. This video changed the course of my career. Right then I realised a couple of things. First, that leatherback turtle populations are declining to critical levels in the Eastern Pacific due to their incidental catch and mortality in fisheries that are actively shark finning. Second, the only ecosystem-wide solution is a reduction of fishing efforts.
In 2001, we successfully lobbied the Costa Rican government to install a ‘Fins Attached’ policy, where sharks must be landed with their fins attached to the body, so as to guarantee that shark finning had not occurred. Back then we didn’t know just how dire the situation was for sharks, and we still believed that if you caught a shark, you should use the whole thing. However, we would get calls from citizens of Puntarenas, telling us the regulation was flagrantly violated every day in the docks of Puntarenas. In response, my colleague Jorge Ballestero would visit Puntarenas, and he eventually obtained video footage of an illegal shark finning operation in the Harezan dock.
On May 31, of 2003, we were tipped off by the Coast Guard that a vessel called the Gruida U Ruey was landing a cargo of 30 tons of shark fins – amounting to the deaths of 30,000 sharks – in the middle of the night at their own private dock with no officers present. We launched a petition against shark finning that was backed by public outcry, which led to a decision by the customs department in November 2004 (the same year we won the Whitley Gold Award) to halt all landings of fishery products by international vessels on privately-owned docks until they complied with the law. Unfortunately, this closure only lasted a few weeks. With the use of private docks, the shark fin industry was allowed to continue business as usual in Costa Rica, despite the fact that 80,000 citizens supported our campaign.
According to Costa Rica’s Customs Law, products can only be imported into the nation through a public facility where the State can protect the public interest, such as migration, taxes, homeland security, public health. The landing of any products by foreign flagged fleets is technically an importation, as permits do not exist for their operation in national waters. By using private docks, shark finners could easily circumvent shark finning regulations, by evading public scrutiny.
Costa Rica has a powerful fishery lobby, in both economic and political terms. Unfortunately, the Executive Branch has typically caved into the interests of the fishery lobby, in such a way that in 1995 the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) was legislatively installed, which basically culminated in a private club of businessmen with a façade of a public institution, where they effectively protect their interests rather than enforcing laws against shark finning. Incopesca is autonomous by law, which means they are not ruled by the President, but rather, by a Board of Directors of Fishermen, which are elected by the fishers themselves. Therefore, we at CREMA must continue to work with the Ministry of Environment and the Costa Rican Congress, and file lawsuits against government agencies when policies that promote unsustainable exploitation of marine resources arise.
Today, everything is overfished. Production of mahi mahi, our main longline target species, has declined over 60% since the late 1990s. This is very discouraging, as mahi mahi is a short lived, fast growing, and very prolific species, traits that should allow for proper management. The effect on long-living, slow growing and less prolific species, like sea turtles and sharks, has been devastating. The Critically Endangered Leatherback sea turtle population has declined over 95% in the Eastern Pacific due to overfishing. All shark species have declined over 90% in our region as well. Under the guise of bycatch, these species are continued to be fished to the brink of extinction, as well as the target species of commercial fish.
It has become increasingly evident that protecting solely the biological hotspots won’t save sharks and other highly migratory species in the long run. We know that after sharks move away from these hotspots, they don’t disperse randomly throughout the oceans, but rather follow specific migratory routes, which must also be protected to be effective. We now know that when it comes to protecting highly migratory species through the creation of no-take areas that have been identified as biological hotspots, bigger is better. The no-take MPA surrounding Cocos Island consists of a 12-mile radius covering an area of 2,000 km2. Is this big enough? Currently, the Galapagos Reserve covers a no-take area of over 60,000 km2, and the Revillagigedo Archipielago in Mexico cover a no-take are of 140,000 km2.
I founded The Rescue Center for Endangered Marine Species (CREMA) in 2012 and we constantly gather and publish data on sharks and sea turtles including in satellite tagging studies as well as studies on capture of these species in the national longline and shrimp fishing fleets. The movements of sharks and other species are far more complex than just moving from one Island to the another in the Eastern Pacific. I’m currently directing studies on the movements of hawksbill turtles, green turtles, bullsharks, hammerhead sharks and manta rays in coastal waters, to supplement the creation of coastal MPAs with clear conservation objectives.
There is a growing diplomatic interest in fostering stronger marine conservation programs in the region. Unfortunately, these international discussions are held within the realm of the Ministries of Environment of the involved nations. When the time comes to incorporate the Fisheries Departments of these nations is when opposition arises. We need to continue to expose the situation and create the public awareness necessary to impose change in fishery policy.
Photographs courtesy of Randall Arauz / CREMA.
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