Print This Story

Shark Finning Banned in Eastern Pacific Ocean

LANZAROTE, Canary Islands, Spain, June 29, 2005 (ENS) - An international ban on shark finning in the Eastern Pacific Ocean was approved by consensus Monday by an intergovernmental fisheries management body meeting in Lanzarote.

Finning, the practice of slicing off a shark's fins and discarding the remainder of the fish - alive or dead - is driven by the lucrative market for shark fin soup and has drawn condemnation from conservationists and members of the public.

The 15 member Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) approved the shark resolution, which was co-sponsored by the United States, the European Union, Japan and Nicaragua and received vocal support from Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Mexico.

"We are elated that the IATTC has acted to ban the wasteful practice of shark finning, thereby taking a huge step towards safeguarding some of the ocean's more vulnerable animals," said Sonja Fordham, shark conservation specialist for The Ocean Conservancy who spoke on behalf of numerous conservation, scientific and fishing organizations during the IATTC debate.

"We are grateful for continued U.S. leadership in international shark conservation initiatives and encouraged by the global momentum toward addressing depletion of sharks," she said.


Some of the fins on board the King Diamond II when it was stopped at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. (Photo courtesy USCG)
In 2002, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Commerce Department, banned shark finning in U.S. waters. But those rules applied only to fishing vessels flying under a U.S. flag while at sea. Foreign vessels continued to take sharks throughout the seas, including U.S. waters.

Central American waters have been prime shark finning territory, said Mario Ugalde of the Costa Rican conservation group Pretoma. In an opinion piece published June 21 in "Diario Extra," Ugalde writes, "A recent report by the government of Japan has revealed that more than 120 Taiwanese vessels have been practicing shark finning in Central America... the majority of these vessels circumvent the law."

"Thanks to the tolerance of our current government," writes Ugalde, "sharks have declined so severely that some of the Taiwanese vessels have been forced to seek sharks elsewhere such as the waters off Pakistan and India."

Hundreds of foreign shark fishing vessels land hundreds of tons of shark fins at the privately owned docks in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, says Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society, who has campaigned in Costa Rica and Ecuador against shark finning and captured shark fin poachers. Due to the private nature of these docks, owners have the right to protect their privacy and deny access to anyone, even government officials.

In Ecuador, shark fishing and the export of shark fins was banned in September 2004 after a long battle between militant local fishermen and the government, which had to give in to pressure from international conservationist organizations, including the Sea Shepherd.

But still the illegal practice of shark finning takes place with the tacit approval of the Ecuadorian Navy and local law enforcement officers.


Galapagos National Park worker discovers finned shark carcasses aboard a fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy Galapagos National Park)
Ecuadorian naturalist and diver Wolfgang Leander wrote in April on the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research website, "The politics behind it would completely astound na´ve international observers. On March 5, 2005, the president of Ecuador, Lucio Gutierrez, visited the Galapagos and held extensive meetings with representatives of the local fishing community. Exactly one week later, Mr. Gutierrez signed a decree to re-allow the export of shark fins as long as sharks are being caught as "by-catch," effectively annulling the September 2004 prohibition to export shark fins."

"This is utterly cynical and outrageous as the new decree opens the door to indiscriminate, totally uncontrolled shark finning," Leander wrote. "The Galapagos fishermen, some of whom are known as an aggressive lot of criminal thugs, will concentrate on fishing sharks and innocently declare their catch as being accidental."

Once the sharks are separated from their fins, most fins are dried and sold to dealers in Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. Prized as a gourmet delicacy, a status symbol and an aphrodisiac, shark fin soup is served in many Asian countries.

The world's first international prohibition on shark finning was adopted last November by the 63 member countries of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), as part of a suite of shark measures.

The new IATTC shark resolution is modeled after the ICCAT agreement; many of the participating countries are active in both Commissions.

IATTC members and cooperating nations with domestic finning prohibitions include the United States, the European Union, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Canada.


Shark fin and dumpling in soup at the Fortune House Seafood Restaurant, Vancouver, Canada. (Photo courtesy Fortune House)
Shark finning is driving some shark species toward extinction. Some tropical Pacific shark populations have declined by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s, research shows.

"Recent increases in shark catches, as well as an expansion of the geographic areas fished, have led to global concern about the status of some shark populations. International cooperation is critical as many species of sharks are highly migratory, and regularly cross national boundaries throughout all oceans of the world," the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a statement at the opening of the IATTC meeting.

"The IATTC finning ban will do much to reduce the needless killing of massive amounts of blacktip, silky and blue sharks, to name a few, that are caught in the region's high seas tuna fisheries," said Kelly Malsch with Defenders of Wildlife. "Because sharks serve as top predators, this IATTC action is essential to keeping the Pacific Ocean ecosystem in balance."


Hammerhead sharks in Ecuador's Galapagos National Park (Photo courtesy Galapagos National Park)
Sharks are vulnerable to overfishing because they grow slowly and produce few young. The IUCN-World Conservation Shark Specialist Group estimates that finning causes the death of tens of millions of sharks worldwide each year.

Presently, the IATTC is the only forum capable of providing international measures for sharks in the Eastern Pacific, where some of the world's largest tuna and billfish fisheries exist.

The new resolution mandates shark data collection and assessment programs while encouraging research into shark nursery areas and ways to avoid incidental catch, or bycatch, of sharks.

"IATTC has taken a big step forward, but sharks remain in peril all over the world," said Charlotte Mogensen, European fisheries policy officer for the World Wildlife Fund. "We urge other Regional Fishery Management Organizations and shark fishing nations to adopt not only finning bans, but requirements for shark data collection, bycatch reduction and precautionary limits."

"The success of the IATTC resolution will hinge on effective monitoring, enforcement, follow-up management and consistent measures in adjacent seas," said Mogensen.

The IATTC Shark Resolution includes a requirement for countries to implement National Plans of Action for shark conservation in accordance with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization 1999 International Plan of Action for Sharks. To date, few countries have developed shark National Plans of Action and there are still no international limits on shark catch.