Bogota, Colombia – Whenever a businessperson in Hong Kong or mainland China wants to impress a client over dinner, shark fin soup is likely to be on the menu. The demand for shark fins on the other side of the world is at the heart of a raging debate in Colombia over efforts to stop the controversial practice of shark finning – removing the fins from a shark and discarding the rest of the fish.
Many hope the ongoing debate will help stop shark fishing altogether. But an effort over the past couple of months to make explicit caps on shark finning has fallen flat. The large fishing industry, which profits from the shark trade, objected – as did environmental activists who said the caps were too high.
Though shark finning is technically not allowed in Colombia, it is hard to stop. A kilogramme of top-quality shark fins can be bought from a Colombian fisherman for about $24, but sold in Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia or Singapore for 25 times that amount.
“Every fisherman with a second-grade education knows that a fin makes money … I have discovered shark fins for $2,000 per kilo,” said Andrea Richey, education director at the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that advocates against the trade and the consumption of shark fins.
Some of the species that are regularly plucked out of Colombia’s waters, including thresher and silky sharks, are listed in the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – CITES, of which Colombia is a signatory. Still, the practice continues despite the potential for sanctions.
“Colombia is very likely to export these species because they are the most commonly caught by the fishery industry,” said Felipe Ladino, a marine ecologist at the Malpelo Foundation, an NGO focused on marine conservation, preservation, research and education.
“We want to call for a ban on exports of shark fins that are supplying the international market,” Ladino told Al Jazeera. “We want that door to be shut because we don’t really see an efficient control mechanism for it.”
Over the past few months, legislators in Colombia introduced – and were then forced to walk back – a measure that would set out specific caps for the catching and export of shark fins. In early December, the ruling Centro Democratico party proposed legislation that would turn shark finning into a crime punishable by four to nine years in prison.
Fishing employs 147,000 people in Colombia, and about 250,000 families rely on artisanal fisheries. The National Aquaculture and Fisheries Authority (AUNAP) estimates that the industry moves about 350,000 tonnes of fish and seafood every year, including 156,000 tonnes that are imported.
Colombia’s existing quotas cap shark catches at 125 tonnes from the Pacific Ocean and 350 tonnes from the Caribbean Sea. Colombia technically prohibits shark finning, but efforts to set explicit caps were met with fierce criticism and forced the government to explain itself. Incidental capturing of sharks is allowed as long as it does not exceed 35 percent of the catch in any one fishing trip. Still, AUNAP data shows that in 2018, more than 48 tonnes of sharks were accidentally caught by industrial fisheries.
Sharks that are accidentally caught are expected to arrive at port intact and with their fins attached. Finning is only allowed afterwards, which also makes it possible to use the rest of the shark’s meat in mixes or sell it as the meat of other fish species, such as tilapia. This is also a common practise because a kilogramme of shark meat costs about 2,500 Colombian pesos ($0.74) in the coastal areas, but a kilogramme of tilapia in Bogota can cost 15,000 pesos ($4.43).
When a shark is caught incidentally, its use is allowed, because it is a kind of accident in the fishing activity.
“This government has not modified or increased this quota and in no way, by means of the resolution issued for 2020, is the export of the shark or its fins being encouraged,” Minister of Agriculture Andres Valencia said during a press briefing. Valencia declined Al Jazeera’s request for further comment.
The “intention of establishing a volume for fins of some species within the established quota was not to promote indiscriminate catches or to legalise practices,” the Colombian government said in an official statement. Instead, the statement clarified, it is to “generate monitoring and control instruments that help the competent authorities to promote the sustainable use of shark species”.
Congressman Juan Espinal said the proposal would advance shark conservation and not, as many suggested, open a back door for the illegal trade of shark fins.
“There is something fundamental in the regulation – and that is that global quotas are established, which have the purpose of controlling the species that are used for consumption and commercialisation for the benefit of all Colombians,” Espinal told Al Jazeera. “When a shark is caught incidentally, its use is allowed, because it is a kind of accident in the fishing activity.”
“Shark finning in Colombia is completely forbidden, and now we filed a project to specifically include that practice in the criminal code,” Espinal added.
Many of the critics of the proposed measures see the current quota as too generous.
“It is a quota that we consider too high, because sharks, unlike bony fish, have a slower life cycle and are therefore much more susceptible to overfishing,” said Ladino.
What environmental activists want is for Colombia to stop shark fishing altogether. That may prove difficult as long as the demand stays strong.
“Sharks play an important role in maintaining the oceans’ populations and [keeping] the ocean water clean,” says Richey. “When the buying stops, then the killing will stop, too. We can stop the buying, and thus stop the killing.”