San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gang attacks Costa Rican environmentalist investigating illegal shark-finning claims

Investigating Costa Rica’s profitable shark-fin trade appears to be an increasingly dangerous undertaking. For the second time in less than a month, unknown assailants in the fishing community of Puntarenas have attacked outside observers as they attempted to film shark fins drying at private docks.

First celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was attacked by “gangsters” and doused with gasoline as he and a film crew investigated Costa Rica’s seedy shark-fin trade for an upcoming British TV episode on Channel 4’s “Big Fish Fight” (TT, Jan. 3).

Now, biologist Jorge Ballestero, of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), says he barely escaped a beating after attempting to film shark fins drying on the ground in unsanitary conditions at a dock next to Puntarenas’ central market.

Local fishermen tipped off Ballestero that a large quantity of shark fins had been unloaded at an unauthorized private dock by a fishing vessel flying a Salvadoran flag. When he took out a video camera to begin filming at the site, a group of “five or six young men” approached him and began threatening him, he said.

Ballestero fled to an adjacent market filled with midday shoppers and flagged down police. But his ordeal wasn’t over.

“I escaped a beating, but the police officers treated me as if I did something wrong,” Ballestero said. “They asked for my identification, but they didn’t ask the people chasing me for anything.”

Ballestero says 10 police officers arrived on the scene. While a large group of onlookers gathered to watch the drama unfold, local fisherman William Flores took out a video camera and began filming. Police threatened to confiscate Flores’ camera.

“Drying fins is not illegal, but we were checking on the sanitary conditions of the docks. I don’t think fins drying on the ground meets government health requirements,” Ballestero said. “Plus, we don’t even know if that dock is legal. It’s the first time we’ve seen fins there.”

“Shark finning is a problem in Puntarenas and everyone can see that. It’s out in the open,” he said.

Last December, officials from the Agriculture Ministry and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute said they would begin enforcing an old rule requiring foreign fishing boats to unload at only public docks (TT, Dec. 17, Nov. 30, 2010). Enforcement of that rule has so far been spotty.

For PRETOMA President Randall Arauz, who escorted Ramsay to the private docks just days before the “Hell’s Kitchen” host was attacked, the assailants’ motivation in both cases is clear.

Said Arauz: “The message is ‘don’t go anywhere near Puntarenas’ private docks with a camera or you’ll get your butt kicked.'”

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