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Shark Finning in the Galapagos

The equation is straightforward: Too many people attempting to live permanently in the Galapagos + too few jobs to go around = a percentage are resorting to illegal economies to survive. Shark finning is one of those illegalities, and still growing. Financed by mafias based in mainland Ecuador, fins are taken – hacked off, the useless carcasses tossed overboard – and sent abroad for shark fin soup. Japanese are the biggest culprits though there are restaurants as far away as Norway and Germany, which sell the soup as well. The sad reality is that not only is it a complete waste of the shark but the fins have absolutely no taste, no nutritional value. It’s all about the show. If you can afford shark fin soup – at a business meeting, wedding, anniversary – it means you’ve got the bucks to spend on a frivolity.

You’ve seen the television ads recently promoting various shark weeks? Fear continues to sell mediocre TV, thus the boom of such shows. Another statistic: How many people are killed by sharks each year worldwide? On average, four or five. How many sharks does man kill each year, some for food, others for showy displays of money? More than seventy million. It’s the sharks that should be swimming away from us as fast as they can.

Over fishing around the globe is a huge problem. The over fishing of sharks, especially the big ones, known as “apex predators” (including the great white and reef sharks) is particularly damaging to the marine cycle since sharks maintain the populations of smaller fish that in turn feed on smaller fish that people consume commercially. Minus the predators, these sub-predators run rampant and decimate smaller fish stocks. While we may think there are unlimited numbers of fish in the sea, the more we rapaciously take the fewer species will live on into the coming decades. One more statistic? The World Wildlife Fund expects all of the fish that we know today to be gone by 2050. That’s what we should be scared of, not the very slim potential of becoming lunch while enjoying a sunny holiday at the beach. (To find a detailed chart and database of the world’s endangered sharks, visit the Shark Foundation.)

Recent attempts to bolster international fishing laws may be getting an extra push in the U.S. pending the passage of legislation now being considered in the Senate (and recently passed in the House). The legislation is designed to close most of the loopholes in the current ban on shark finning in American waters. Hopefully other nations will follow suit. (International Fisheries Law and Policy Portal.)

In the Galapagos we spent time with Godfrey Merlen, who represents San Francisco-based Wild Aid there. A twenty-year resident, he leads the group’s local efforts against illegal wildlife trafficking. Small groups of paid informants keep him alert to who in the relatively small community are shark finning (as well as poaching sea cucumbers and other at-risk species). Unfortunately once the fins are back in mainland Ecuador, even when seized by officials they often end up back in the illegal markets. Corruption is a boom business in Ecuador too.

“Over fishing of a number species is a reality in the Galapagos and in some ways – for some species, like lobsters – it’s a little bit late to talk about. We also know that thousands and thousands of sea cucumbers are recovered from illegal fisheries every year, which has had a depressing effect on the remaining population and makes management of it near impossible.

“Still, even though we know it’s going on, illegal sea cucumber gathering is an active component of the fisheries here and brings in considerable money. Just recently, at the end February, there was a capture of thirty sacks of cucumbers on the mainland, about 3,000 pounds, with an estimated value of about $200,000. This is a lot of money and a lot of sea cucumbers. Most of them came from right here in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Local fishermen say, What are we supposed to do, what are we supposed to fish? Lobster and grouper are nearly gone. So they get into the illegal market very, very simply and easily. Though the national park has patrol boats and keeps up vigilance the area is enormous and enforcement is difficult. As a result it’s been extremely easy to export illegal produce from the Galapagos.

“It’s exactly the same with the shark fin. Sharking finning, the removal of the fins and leaving the bodies to rot either in the ocean or on the shoreline, has become very common in Galapagos. Again, the fishermen say, “I have a lot of debt, I need to buy a new motor for my boat, and I don’t have any money.” Then someone comes along and says, Well, okay, I’ll lend you money but what I want is sea cucumbers, shark fins, sea lion penises, seahorses, whatever is the going mode especially in the far eastern countries where money is not a problem. Huge sums of money can be poured into a place like the Galapagos to fuel an illegal fishery. In the long run of course things can only go from bad to worse for the fishery.

“As resources decline whether through legal or illegal fisheries the resource is the basis of the fisherman’s economy. As those resources decline, incomes decline too and the cost of living keeps going up. Sooner or later the price of fuel will jump back up; currently it’s a very false $1 a gallon for diesel. What the fishermen fail to understand is that ultimately all these illegal activities combined with the lack of a sufficiently strong fisheries management, at a certain point the fishing sector of the economy will collapse.

“At the moment the fisherman finds himself in a really hot spot, partially through his own failure to appreciate the risks he’s running. He may make money today but tomorrow he will not make money. He’s already discovered that with the sea cucumber. Basically the fishermen have very little money because the resource is disappearing.”

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