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Shark Fin Harvesting in Ecuador Revisited

'Sincere Efforts' To Close Finning Loopholes Reported

Story by Bob Ramsak February 7th, 2015

When I was in Ecuador in May 2013, I posted a brief summary on my blog of how a loophole in Ecuadoran law allowed fishermen to legally sell sharks that ended up in their nets. While shark fishing is officially outlawed, the law didn’t clearly define a distinction between landings that were accidental or intentional, which meant that plenty of dead sharks, young and old, were piling up on Ecuador’s coast each morning.

The main prize was the fin, which continued to command a lucrative price to help feed China’s insatiable appetite for shark fin soup. I spotted plenty of evidence during a couple brief walks along the morning fish markets; photos I snapped in both Manta and Puerto Lopez are below.

Fin harvest, Tarqui Beach, Manta, Ecuador, May 2013
Tarqui Beach, Manta, Ecuador, May 2013

But attitudes in China may be changing, according to a report released last August by WildAid, a US-based organization that focuses on reducing the demand for wildlife products.

According to the report, Evidence of Declines in Shark Fin Demand, China, released on August 4, prices and sales of shark fin in China have dropped by 50-70 percent thanks largely to awareness campaigns and partial government bans. A WildAid PSA featuring China’s retired NBA star Yao Ming played a role, too.

Evidence was compiled from “public opinion surveys, surveys from shark fin vendors and traders in the markets of Guangzhou, China (the current center of China’s shark fin trade) and surveys of shark fin price data from Indonesian shark fishermen, as well as trade statistics and media reports,” according to a statement published on the WildAid website.

Tarqui Beach, Manta, Ecuador, May 2013

More from the press statement and WildAid’s summary:

– 82 percent decline in sales reported by shark fin vendors in Guangzhou, China and a decrease in prices (47 percent retail and 57 percent wholesale) over the past two years.

– 85 percent of Chinese consumers surveyed online said they gave up shark fin soup within the past 3 years. 2/3 of these respondents cited awareness campaigns, 28.2 percent cited the government banquet ban as a reason.

– 24 airlines, three shipping lines, and five hotel groups have officially banned shark fin from their operations

– Of 20 Beijing restaurant representatives interviewed in a study to be published in the journal Conservation and Society, 19 reported a significant decline in shark fin consumption. All agreed that WildAid PSAs featuring Yao Ming had “definitely raised awareness among customers.”

– 80 percent decline in prices paid to fishermen from 2007 levels in Tanjung Luar and Lombok in Indonesia and a decline of 19 percent since 2002-3 in Central Maluku, Southeastern Maluku and East Nusa Tenggara.

“Demand reduction can be very effective,” said Peter Knights, Executive Director of WildAid. “The more people learn about the consequences of eating shark fin soup, the less they want to participate in the trade. Government bans on shark fin at state banquets in China and Hong Kong also helped send the right message and this could be a model to address issues, such as ivory.”

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed yearly with up to 73 million sharks used for their fins, primarily to supply the market in Mainland China. Some shark populations have declined by up to 98 percent in the last 15 years and nearly one third of pelagic shark species are considered threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In the Guangzhou markets, assumed to be the new center of China’s shark fin trade, wholesale traders now complain of dwindling sales and falling prices. Retailers who were selling medium-sized shark fins for as much as US$642 per kilogram are now only able to charge half as much. One Guangzhou wholesaler commented that “shark fin is a dying business” and another is quoted saying that “Yao Ming’s commercial impact single-handedly smashed my business,” in reference to WildAid’s ongoing multimedia public awareness campaigns.

Another finding detailed in the report is the increasing public suspicion of fake shark fin in the market. Four of the trader/vendors interviewed in Guangzhou mentioned the fake product as a reason for the decline in their sales, and 43 percent of the respondents of our consumer survey said they thought that much of the shark fin in the market is artificial.

Download the full report here.

Tarqui Beach, Manta, Ecuador, May 2013
Tarqui Beach, Manta, Ecuador, May 2013

Ecuador update- 'Sincere efforts to improve'

As I alluded to above, my interest in fin harvesting was piqued while I was in Ecuador last year where evidence that the laws –some of the most stringent in the region and in the world– were easy to sidestep, was piling up all around me. Even when I wasn’t necessarily looking for it. Updates on the law, if any, weren’t so easy to locate. That doesn’t mean however that things haven’t changed.

The most recent English language report on the situation in Ecuador that I could find was the December 2011 story in The Global Post that I referenced in my brief post from Manta in May 2013. I’m not in Ecuador at the moment and won’t be returning until the latter part of February, but I’ve been in touch with several people who are and who closely monitor conservation efforts on the ground. I’m hoping to explore this further when I return, but in the meantime, here’s some additional clarification and updates on legislation and policy directed at further sealing some of the existing loopholes.

To be clear: this is not an update on the practicalities of the legislation, how it’s being monitored or on how incidental shark catches are being controlled. I hope to catch up with that if I have a chance when I return in late winter. This post is simply to share some additional information and critical updates I’ve gathered for those seeking it.

Tarqui Beach, Manta, Ecuador, May 2013

In a recent email exchange, Pablo Xavier Guerrero Verduga, the Marine Coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund, outlined the national action plan for conservation and management of sharks that Ecuador has been implementing since 2007.

“That plan has allowed,” Guerrero wrote, “among other things, to establish basic rules: prohibition of finning, protecting certain flagship species, prohibiting the use of steel branch line on longlines. The plan has also helped establish a monitoring program that after 7 years of implementation has shown the condition or trends of certain stocks of sharks and also a very useful traceability system based on certificates of monitoring and mobilization guides. The plan was evaluated by a third in 2013 and at the present time it is implementing a new phase of the plan (2014-2018).”

Juvenile hammerhead sharks, morning fish market, Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, May 2013
Morning fish market, Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, May 2013

Broadly speaking, specifically targeting sharks is illegal in Ecuador. To limit incidental capture, shark-specific gear is banned. Retention of incidental catch is however legal. In an email, Scott Henderson, Vice President for Conservation International in the Americas Field Division Marine Program, explained:

“The rule is that when a shark is landed a fisheries monitoring official needs to note the landing, including the species and the presence of fins being naturally attached. After that, fins can be removed,” wrote Henderson, who has worked in the Galapagos Islands for more than three decades. He further underscored: “Note, I’m explaining the rule, not claiming that it is universally respected.”

That said, he praised Ecuadoran efforts.

“What is certain is that the Ecuadorian laws and system is much better than it used to be, and much better than most Latin American countries — indeed better than most countries, in general. This doesn’t mean it is perfect, but there have been sincere efforts to improve.”

Hammerhead sharks at the morning fish market, Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, May 2013

“Surely, more progress is needed and that’s what organizations like ours try to do – assist governments in their efforts to better manage the marine environment. [Conservation International] was a strong supporter of the improved shark legislation in Ecuador and invested in the fisheries landing and monitoring program to get it up and running. We’ve continued to work closely with Ecuadorian authorities and are confident things will continue to improve.”

As evidenced by the photos I took in Puerto Lopez, juvenile hammerheads often wound up on the wrong side of a net. This is something that more recent legislation has addressed, according to Luis Suárez, Vice President of Conservation International-Ecuador. In a recent email exchange, Suárez explained:

“On August 26 2013, Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries (MAGAP) issued new regulations to limit the incidental catches and sales of hammerhead sharks. The Ministerial Agreement (No. 116) covers two species of hammerhead sharks: the white cachuda (Sphyrna zygaena) and the red cachuda (Sphyrna lewini), which are included in the IUCN red list of threatened species.”

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, May 2013

“CI-Ecuador has supported the Ecuadorian government in implementing a national action plan for sharks and directed conservation efforts around species that deserve greater concern, including manta rays, whale sharks and hammerhead sharks,” Suárez wrote.

“Under this new regulation, which included input from artisanal fishermen, small vessels (known as “fibers”) are permitted by-catch of no more than five juvenile hammerheads (up to 150 cm total length) per trip and cannot include any pregnant individuals. If sharks are caught incidentally, the fishermen must return them to the sea immediately. The regulation also prohibits the capture, shipment, unloading, storage and sale of hammerhead sharks by industrial fishing vessels, which includes ships as well as sport fishing and recreational boats.”

If I have the opportunity to follow up when in Ecuador this spring, I’ll post an update on my website here.

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, May 2013
Footnote: A version of this photo essay first appeared on my website PiranCafe.com. Note that these photos were taken in May 2013, before the new hammerhead legislation was enacted.
Puerto Lopez, Manabi, Ecuador