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2,000 Sharks Killed in Colombian Protected Waters

Last week in the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, off Colombia’s Pacific coastline, The Guardian reports that more than 2,000 hammerhead, Galapagos, and whale sharks were slaughtered for their fins…inside the marine-protected area.

Like the Galapagos, the Malpelo Sanctuary—both World Heritage sites—sits far offshore. It is 300 miles and 36 hours by boat from the mainland and covers 3,300 square miles. Colombia’s Navy only sporadically patrols it.
Stop Shark Finning

While Russian divers were at Malpelo studying sharks last week, they reported seeing ten large fishing trawlers, which were flying the flag of Costa Rica, illegally enter the protected zone. A video made by the divers shows dead, finless sharks covering the ocean floor. The Russians reported the trawlers caught and killed 200 sharks per boat.

The Malpelo sanctuary is considered one of the most shark-rich areas of ocean on the planet, where divers report sightings of 200 hammerhead sharks and as many as 1,000 silky sharks in a single dive. Colombia has national rules banning harvesting of shark fins plus a comprehensive plan for management and conservation of sharks, rays, and chimeras.

Yet despite all of these rules, Marine Protected Areas (MPAS) are proving very difficult to police. For example, the ocean surrounding the Galapagos Islands is perhaps the most famous protected water in the world. The Galapagos are a marine reserve, World Heritage site, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Still, its waters are nearly impossible to adequately patrol and are constantly raided by poachers and shark finners.

“The problem for most [Marine Protected Areas], citing the Galapagos and now Malpelo as prime examples, is enforcement, particularly the funding necessary for good policing.”

On paper, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are considered among the most forward-looking ways to protect the ocean, or at least parts of it. Sure, fishermen get rankled when they’re told they can no longer fish areas they and their families have worked for several generations, but even they tend to catch on to the benefits of MPAs as stocks replenish when properly left alone. Meanwhile, exploiters of oil and gas are often outright against MPAs because they put potential drilling off-limits.

Around the world there are currently about 6,800 MPAs, from the Philippines to Hawaii, the Great Barrier Reef to the Dry Tortugas. They protect just a little over one percent of the entire ocean, a number ocean conservationists would like to see grow to ten percent. The problem for most MPAs, citing the Galapagos and now Malpelo as prime examples, is enforcement, particularly the funding necessary for good policing.
Eco Tweets Day & Night With TakePart Enviro

After the report of the recent finnings in Malpelo, the Colombian Navy gave chase. It caught up with a fishing boat, but it was Ecuadorian-flagged, though also carrying an illegal catch of shark and other fish.

When the Colombian foreign ministry complained to the government of Costa Rica about the incident, the latter said it “energetically condemned” the finning. Three of the trespassing boats were identified by name: the Marco Antonio, the Jefferson and the Andy, which you would think would make them easy to track down.

Stay tuned.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)

Is Banning Shark Fin Soup Racist?

Master predators that they are, and despite what media “shark week” programming might suggest, sharks are having a tough time. It’s bad enough being bad-mouthed on beaches around the world and used as poster-boys for deep-sea aggression. To add injury to insult, their numbers have been reduced by up to 90 percent in some places, and they are increasingly being hunted for their fins. The fins are lopped off to make soup for Asian dinner parties and restaurant menus. According to the New York Times, more than 73 million sharks are killed each year for the fins, in large part to indulge a booming Chinese middle class.

Photo: Luca Tettoni/Getty Images

The impact of shark finning is so devastating that some countries and states are banning the fin soup. Last December, in an effort to protect sharks from a gruesome end (the fins are cut off, the still living bodies dumped into the ocean to drown) Congress banned all shark finning in U.S. waters.

Unfortunately, for sharks, the federal law doesn’t regulate the import of shark fins taken in other waters. So Hawaii went first, passing a law banning the importation of shark fins and meting out fines of $5,000 to $15,000 for scofflaws. Similar legislative efforts are underway in Washington, Oregon and California.

Not everyone agrees the legislation is the right thing to do. Chinese American communities up and down the West Coast see the law as “racist.”

In San Francisco, California’s fist Chinese American state senator and mayoral candidate Leland Yee has called the proposed state law banning all shark fins as an “attack on Asian culture.”

Yee’s playing to a hometown crowd; San Francisco is nearly one-third Asian and home to the country’s largest Chinatown.

If passed, the law would prohibit hundreds of restaurants from serving the soup, which has a 2,000-year history and is regarded a delicacy. Yee supports the federal ban on illegal killing of sharks for their fins, but he contends that some fins come from legally fished sharks; so an overall ban on importing them is unjust. Proving a fin comes from a legally hunted shark is tricky, and black markets exist.

“Arguably sharks are the most important fish in the ocean,” said David McGuire, a shark researcher at California Academy of Sciences and director of SeaStewards, an environmental group that sponsors the bill.

“Take away the sharks, and, for example, many coral reef ecosystems become degraded,” says Dan Cartamil, researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Despite the damage done to the marine ecosystem, and predictions that sharks will be gone by 2050, economics are driving the fight: Sharks fins can sell for as much as $500 a pound. Restaurant owners can sell a bowl of shark fin soup for as much as $100.

The Chinese American community is not wholly united in opposing the importation ban. Alex Ong, chef at the Pan-Asian restaurant Betelnut in San Francisco’s Marina district, saw gruesome images of sharks being finned and stopped serving the soup. He suggested to the SF Weekly that the broth is the most important aspect of the soup and other seafood could easily be substituted for the fins.

A poll by the Monterey Bay Aquarium indicated strong support of a fin ban among Californians. More than three-quarters of the 600 registered voters surveyed said they support the bill. Of the 218 Chinese-American respondents, 70 percent said they support it.

(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)

Posted in Shark Finning, Sharks

Deep Inside bin Laden’s Watery Grave

The Current often laments humankind’s tendency to treat our one ocean as a kind of infinite, unpollutable dumping ground. From municipalities to fishing boats, cruise ships to oil rigs, people seem to feel that tossing unwanted junk into the sea is easy and appropriate.

Photo: Alexander Safonov/Getty Images

Which is why on Monday, when Osama bin Laden wound up on the wrong end of automatic weapon fire and needed to be dumped, no one blinked as his corpse splashed into the sea. My mind, of course, went immediately to: What exactly happens to a body when it’s dropped into the salty ocean? Does it sink, or is it instant shark bait? If it floats for awhile, how long will it take to decompose?

Scientific studies of ocean-borne bodily decomposition have been done pigs, because pigling skin is, like humans, hairless and soft-skinned, and we carry similar “gut bacteria.”

On land, although dogs, vultures or other large animals may get first dibs on decomposing flesh, flies and other insects are usually first to attack the soft tissue of dead bodies. Depending on weather conditions, a corpse left exposed in warm conditions in the wild will be reduced to bones within a couple weeks.

When the deceased is swallowed by saltwater, a different set of predators takes over. Like so much about the ocean, relatively little is known for sure, but one thing is certain: Sharks are the number-one scavenger.

“Like any predator, sharks are opportunistic feeders, and they’ll take advantage of any resource that’s given to them,” says George Burgess. Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Burgess is also the curator of the International Shark Attack File.

The VENUS Project of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, joined by the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, experimented with weighting a dead pig and dropping it into the Saanich Inlet. A remotely operated camera transmitted real-time data back to scientists aboard a Coast Guard research vessel on the surface.

The results? “The pig saw a lot of action,” says the official report. “After a first day, a large section of one haunch was missing after a possible shark attack.” Hit-and-miss scavenging continued. After six days, crabs had gathered en masse over the carcass.

If a human body drops to the deep ocean floor, the lack of light, the extreme cold and heavy pressure will kill off bacteria, slowing decomposition. Big fish may swim deep and take some bites, followed by smaller detritivores, like lampreys. Even at the bottom of the ocean floor, the competition for food, and microscopic but voracious organisms, would reduce the body to bones in a few days.

When a big whale dies and sinks, it sets in motion a new beginning for deep-sea life, bringing “a whopping amount of organic matter” to a place where food is scarce. The first so-called whale fall was observed in 1987 by marine biologists off Santa Catalina, California, at 4,000 feet below sea level.

For several years the dead whale becomes a kind of sub-ocean aquaculture project, feeding a community of more than 190 species, including lobsters, bristle worms, prawns, shrimp, hagfish, bone-eating worms, crabs, sea cucumbers, octopuses, mussels and clams. Eventually, large colonies of tubeworms take over the carcasses. More than 30 previously unknown species of marine life have been discovered at whale falls around the globe.

But a good-sized whale outweighs even a tall man by thousands of times; so the end for a human body heading toward the ocean floor would come relatively quickly. Given bin Laden’s unsavory infamy, I guess it’s not so surprising that he would end up, to paraphrase Don Corleone, “Swimming with the fishes.”

(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)

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