San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica an example for shark fishermen

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – An international conservation organization is using Costa Rica as an example of how fishing vessels can store and freeze an entire shark on board rather than cutting off the valuable fins and throwing the rest of the edible – but less expensive – fish overboard.

European fishermen say they have to cut the sharks’ fins off and store them separately from the bodies because they do not stack easily when frozen, according to Suzanne Pleydell, international director of the Project AWARE Foundation, a global environmental advocacy group that partners with scuba divers.

Often, fishermen simply cut the fin off and throw the rest of the shark overboard, a tremendous waste of potentially edible fish meat. The four largest shark-fishing nations are Indonesia, India, Spain and Taiwan, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Shark Fin

Big Money: Hundreds of kilos of shark fins allegedly are unloaded every week at docks in Puntarenas in what has become a multi-million dollar industry.

Francesco Vicenzi | Tico Times

Costa Rican fishing vessels, however, are “an excellent example of [using] the ‘partial-cut’ technique of keeping the fins attached [by] cutting three-quarters of the way through the fin, and bending it over so the freezer vessels can still store the fins and stack the fish,” Pleydell said.

Pleydell, who recently spoke at the annual Diving Equipment and Marketing Association convention here, is also a group manager for education and instructor development at PADI International, a scuba training organization.

One of the main problems with shark conservation is a general lack of data on how many shark species are actually threatened with extinction, Pleydell said. Scientists and policymakers lack information on 47 percent of all shark species, with very little information on how many sharks have been caught or how many were discarded after having their valuable fins cut off, she said, adding that shark fins can fetch up to $740 per kilogram.

While the latest figures show that 17 percent of 1,044 shark species are endangered, Pleydell said some scientists believe that figure to be closer to 30 percent. Some populations have even seen a 70 to 80 percent decline, she added.

The most recent detailed information on the shark fishery off Costa Rica is from a 1999 FAO report that stated that 3,200 tons of shark meat was fished during 1997.

“If you have a shark with the fin attached, you know just one shark has been taken from the ocean. [You have] the fins to match that shark, you can identify the species, you can get the data and you don’t waste the shark; and that’s what the Costa Ricans and their freezer vessels [have done],” she said.

One possible reason for the change in practice could be economic. According to the FAO’s latest fishery fact sheet for Costa Rica, “The recent withdrawal of long-liners from the international fleet, which used to operate out of the [Pacific] port of Puntarenas, has led to a sharp decline in the supply of shark, resulting in higher shark prices” (see separate story).

Pleydell said Project AWARE is looking to persuade countries to reduce the waste from shark finning by helping them find economically sound ways to keep the entire shark.

Tico fishermen “have been doing it for several years, so they’ve just been very progressive in trying to preserve sharks,” Pleydell said. “They’ve kind of proved to the world that it can be done, and we’re using them as an example in Europe to lobby for the same thing.”

Costa Rica’s policy has been influential in Latin America and the U.S. as well. Since Costa Rica passed legislation in 2001 requiring that sharks be brought ashore with fins attached, Panama, El Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador have followed suit. The U.S. Congress is also debating a shark conservation bill that would require sharks to be docked with their fins naturally attached.

But Costa Rica’s battle against shark finning is ongoing. Foreign vessels, some of which have been caught with removed fins on board, still have been avoiding inspections in Costa Rica by docking at private docks, and the fins enter the market undetected. 

While Costa Rican law requires that ships  unload cargo at public facilities, Randall Arauz, president of Costa Rica’s Marine Turtle Restoration Program, said that fishing authorities have not enforced the regulations, damaging the country’s credibility on the international stage.

“Costa Rica’s domestic policy must be congruent with its foreign policy,” Arauz said. “Costa Rica is trying to call on other countries [and tell them] how to land sharks, but we have this giant loophole. I go to the U.N. and talk about shark finning and they [ask] me, ‘how’s your private dock issue going?’”

 –Mike McDonald contributed to this report.

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