|Over-fishing and the drug trade are hurting vulnerable shark populations [GALLO/GETTY]
Sharks are facing a new threat: they are being fished off the Pacific coast of Central America and Mexico and used to smuggle cocaine to the United States, through Mexico.
This stretch of ocean and its coasts have become a transit route for drugs produced in Colombia and shipped to the United States, the world's largest market for cocaine, according to United Nations figures.
"What is happening on the high seas is going on with all types of fishing, not just sharks," said Juan Carlos Cantú, head of the Mexico programme of Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based organisation working to protect endangered species.
Cantú explained that "Mexico hardly exports any shark, except for fins. In fact, it imports shark from Costa Rica for domestic consumption." There is evidence of a link between shark capture and drug trafficking. In June 2009, the freighter Dover Strait, bound for Mexico with a cargo of frozen shark loaded at Caldera, a private port in the western Costa Rican city of Puntarenas, was intercepted by the Mexican authorities.
Stuffed in the shark carcases were 894 kilograms of cocaine. One month later, Costa Rican authorities seized another 419 kilos of cocaine from a fisherman who was carrying the drug in a refrigerated van, hidden under layers of shark and red snapper.
Most cocaine trafficking in the area is done by sea, said Carlos Alvarado, head of the Costa Rican Drug Institute.
"We have to make an effort to patrol our territorial waters up to the 12-mile limit with a fleet of speedboats," and seek international cooperation beyond that limit, he said.
Colombian and Mexican drug cartels have established sea routes in the Pacific, sailing from Colombia and following the Central American coastline. Costa Rica has taken on the specific role of refuelling the drug traffickers' speedboats, among other tasks. On the high seas, the drug traffickers pay fishermen for fuel with packages of drugs. There are no estimates for the value of this payment in kind.
Private docks, like Caldera, are another serious problem, said Costa Rican biologist Randall Araúz, head of the local office of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
Araúz was awarded the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize for combating the "finning" of sharks, an abominable practice that has intensified in the area and is apparently related to cocaine trafficking. Sharks are captured and their fins cut off while they are still alive, then tossed back in the sea where they die because they are unable to swim.
"The police can only enter the private docks if they have a search warrant from a judge. It's true that the owners often let the authorities in, but it's not the same," the biologist said.
So it is up to the Mexican authorities to keep a watch on the passage of fishing boats along the country’s Pacific coast, and to take action if their Central American counterparts warn them of any suspect vessel.
Overfishing of shark in Mexico has grown worse in recent years, to the extent that several species have been brought to the brink of extinction, and therefore catch numbers have now declined.
In 1990 the shark catch was 34,000 tons, while in the last few years the average annual catch has been 26,000 tons, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
Mexican fishing authorities have granted some 240 fishing permits for shark, according to the National Fisheries Chart, last published in 2006.
Official regulations in force since 2007 prohibit finning, and stipulate the types of fishing methods and of boats suitable for catching shark. Previously there were no regulations, and whales, seals, dolphins and sea turtles were wastefully caught as by-catch because of the large trawling nets used.
In Costa Rica, a 2006 law prohibits tossing finned shark overboard. The fins weigh five per cent of the sharks' total weight, but are the most profitable part because of high demand from China and Japan for shark fin soup and other delicacies.
Mexican activist Cantú said that at present "80 per cent of the country's shark species are endangered. There is a lot of illegal fishing, and a total absence of controls."
But Mexico’s official regulation 059, on endangered species, lists only three imperilled varieties of shark: the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and the whale shark (Rhincodon typus).
However, not even these three shark species enjoy special protection status, as they are still controlled under the General Law of Sustainable Fishing and Aquaculture of 2007. When a species is designated as protected, it comes under the scope of the Environment Ministry and the Wildlife Law, in force since 2000.
Sharks are "top predators" at sea, said Erick Ross, coordinator of sustainable marine resources for the Costa Rican office of MarViva, a non-governmental organisation. They are at the top of the food chain, and they maintain the health of ecosystems by eliminating the weakest individuals from fish populations lower down the chain, thus improving the gene pools of species.
"A clear indication of a sick ecosystem is the absence of top predators, like sharks, groupers, marlins and so on. It is also an indication of overfishing, because fish are being extracted in an unsustainable way," Ross said.
An attempt in March to include a group of shark species in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), at the 15th Conference of the Parties in Qatar, met with failure.
Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with immediate extinction, but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.
"It's unfortunate the shark species weren't included, because it would have provided in-depth knowledge about what is going on in international trade, what volumes are being imported and exported, between which countries, and which species," said Cantú.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.