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The practice of shark finning — cutting off sharks’ fins and throwing them back into the water to die a slow, painful death — is avert-the-eyes horrific. Fishermen waste the rest of the shark because the fin is the most valuable.
Finning has reduced shark populations worldwide by 90 percent over the last 50 years, and certain species are down 95 or 99 percent. Demand comes primarily in the form of shark fin soup, traditionally a dish for wealthy Chinese and now consumed by the vast and growing Chinese middle class and expatriate communities. Shark fin is also used in some vitamin supplements and make-up. Tens of millions of sharks are slaughtered annually, according to researcher Shelley Clarke at Imperial College Conservation Science.
Sharks are apex predators, keeping whole ecosystems in balance. Their absence is beginning to harm ocean health and the success of food species.
To protect endangered shark species from finning, Costa Rican biologist Randall Arauz founded a nongovernmental organization called Pretoma. Arauz just won the Goldman Environmental Prize — “the Nobel of environmental activism” — in San Francisco for his work.
Shark activism is heating up generally. Palau and the Maldives have passed total bans on shark fishing in their waters, and Hawaii, in the first law of its kind, just banned the sale of shark-fin products. Other shark activist groups are working on public education campaigns in China in which basketball star Yao Ming advocates saying no to shark fin soup.
Question: How did you become an activist against shark finning?
Answer: I’m a marine biologist in Costa Rica, working with sea turtles. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the real problems with turtles are the fisheries. The shrimp trawlers kill a lot of turtles, but the longline industry catches far more. In longlining, you set a long line out in the middle of the ocean, up to 150 miles long. Lots of turtles get caught on these hooks as well as sharks and other bycatch.
A friend of mine was able to find a job as a cook on a longline boat, and we gave him a camera. He brought back all this footage of turtles being caught on the longline — just what we wanted — but then at the very end, he had extra footage of a blue shark being brought on board. They hacked the fins off, they threw the shark overboard, and that was my first contact with shark finning. We were appalled. What was this brutality?
It didn’t take us long to put two and two together. Why are all these foreign fleets from Taiwan coming to Costa Rica, killing all the turtles as incidental bycatch? They’re here because they’re catching sharks for their fins, and the turtles are just innocent bystanders who are killed in this shark massacre. That’s when we figured out that if we can stop the shark finning, we can help the sea turtles as well.
Q: As a biologist, can you explain what losing 90 percent or more of sharks in an area does to the ecosystem?
A: There’s a very important principle in ecology: biodiversity fosters biodiversity. So if we have many species of sharks, that means we’re going to have many species of animals that they prey upon. Logic would tell us that if we wipe out the sharks, hey, nothing’s going to eat the fish, and fish populations will increase. But it’s totally the contrary. If we wipe out the sharks and reduce their diversity, everything is going to be less diverse, and it will create a major change in the structure of the ecosystem’s functioning.
Recently, on the East Coast of the United States, the sharks were wiped out. And as a consequence, scallop fisheries, which are hundreds of years old, have collapsed. And people wonder, well, what’s the relationship between sharks and scallops? And the thing is, sharks on the East Coast of the United States feed on rays. And rays feed on scallops. So when you wipe out the sharks, nothing eats the rays, so the rays have a population explosion, and they end up eating all the scallops. And people, who lived for many centuries harvesting scallops in a sustainable fashion, all of a sudden have no more fishery because the sharks were wiped out.
Q: You’ve worked with the U.N. on a ban, called the Costa Rica method, thanks to your efforts. What does it say? Is it effective?
A: We mandate in Costa Rica that all boats have to land their sharks with the fins attached. This regulation is becoming very famous because it’s efficient. In Costa Rica we had 400 longlining vessels operating, mainly from Taiwan, and now we only have 100 boats. The 300 other boats decided to go to Guatemala or other countries without regulations where they can keep on doing their shark finning activities.
We were able to get the U.N. in 2007 to call on all nations of the world to land their sharks with the fins attached. Unfortunately, the U.N. is not binding so it’s only a recommendation. But because of this, other nations have been following us: Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and now even the East Coast of the United States.
Q: Under your policy, fishers can sell the fins as long as they’re using the rest of the shark?
A: Up to this point, yes. Because when we started this campaign, it was a matter of sustainability: using the resource and minimizing waste. But we’re changing our focus now because, even if sharks are being landed with their fins attached, we’re still killing way too many sharks. We really need to start reducing shark mortality all together. And the way we’re going to be able to do this is with marine protected areas, closed seasons and fostering responsible fisheries. And making sure that these fishermen abide by the law.
Q: You’re meeting with Sen. John Kerry soon to talk about the proposed U.S. Shark Conservation Act, right? What do you hope to gain by talking with the senator?
A: The Shark Conservation Act would mandate that sharks must be landed with fins attached countrywide. In the United States, it’s already mandatory to land sharks with fins attached on the East Coast, but West Coast fishermen are fighting the regulation. [The state of California has had a fins-attached policy since 1996. —E.G.] I hope to convince Senator Kerry that this regulation should be mandatory on the Pacific as well. If the fishermen are not finning sharks, it should create no problem for them economically.
Q: What do you think of regulations such as Hawaii’s ban on sale or possession, or Palau and the Maldives’ bans on shark fishing?
A: Enforcement is always a problem. That’s why in Costa Rica, we’re trying to work more on management. We believe we would have a more efficient grip on the situation if we try to manage the fisheries by restricting fishing during certain seasons or in certain areas. But the real important thing here is the enforcement.
[Worldwide, there are hundreds of species of sharks, all with different life habits and needs for survival. Arauz said that passing meaningful management regulations is further complicated by migratory species that use the open ocean, which requires multiple countries to cooperate on conservation.
Plus, only the U.N. has jurisdiction over international waters, and its Convention on the Law of the Sea is difficult to enforce. Plus, in international waters, enforcement is difficult due to the vastness of the ocean and complicated jurisdictional structures such as the U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. —E.G.]
A: I really hope that winning the prize helps us to influence Costa Rican policy. We are doing very good international policy work, but our domestic policy is very bad. We have regulations that say sharks must be landed whole, and foreign fleets must land in public facilities.
But we’re working against certain sectors of the government, like the Fisheries Institution and the Customs and Public Transportation Ministries because they’re allowing foreign fleets to land illegally in Costa Rica in their own private docks. In Costa Rica the shark finners are from foreign fleets. So by [landing on the private docks], they can easily circumvent the law.
[Four years ago, in response to ongoing violations by shark finning fleets, Arauz filed suite against the Fisheries Institute and the Customs and Public Transportation ministries in Costa Rica’s highest court for failing to abide by existing customs law. The court ruled in his favor. —E.G.]
In fact, shark finning is the least of the damage these folks are doing to Costa Rica. Six months ago, a foreign boat that left Costa Rica was caught in Mexico with 30 tons of cocaine in the bellies of frozen sharks. We thought that would be enough for these private docks to be closed. No.
Last week they caught a boat in one of these private docks in Puntarenas with 36 slaves onboard. They arrested two businessmen, one Taiwanese, one Costa Rican, who operated at this private dock. And that’s the issue: Costa Rica has invited businessmen with no conscience. They’re shark finning. They’re trafficking drugs. They’re trafficking slaves. And Costa Rica is allowing this to happen. Costa Ricans should be embarrassed about what’s going on at the private docks.
We have court resolutions in our favor saying that they can’t do this. We have the congress on our side. We have the state attorney on our side. But the Costa Rica Fisheries Institute just keeps blowing us off.
We need the government of Costa Rica to define what we are. Are we the shark saviors of the world, at the U.N., promoting sustainable shark fisheries? Or are we major shark finners, allowing the Taiwanese to wipe out our sharks right under our noses and land illegally on our docks? Are we going to be the champions or the culprits?
The Goldman Prize is the world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists and was created by San Francisco philanthropists Richard N. Goldman and his late wife, Rhoda H. Goldman. This year’s prizes of $150,000 each went to six people, one from each of the six populated continents of the Earth. They were honored Monday night at a ceremony at the San Francisco Opera House.
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