Puntarenas, Costa Rica – The clarion call of gulls resonates overhead off the Costa Rican coast as the grunting men haul a large shark over the stern.
A heated blade slices off each of its fins until a troika of right angles lay about the deck. The now fin-less shark is heaved overboard into the Pacific Ocean, where it slowly bleeds out and drowns.
Nearly 400,000 sharks were killed off the Costa Rican coast in this manner last year, its Waters and Oceans Vice Minister Jose Lino Chaves estimates. The reason: shark fin soup – a highly popular ancient Chinese delicacy.
As ocean waters turn red, a sliver-lining recently came from unexpected shores.
Costa Rica – the tiny Central American country known for environmental sustainability efforts – banned shark finning in its waters last week. Activists are hoping more global restrictions on the trade will be imposed at a key environmental conference in Bangkok, Thailand in March.
Hard figures on the grisly hunt are difficult to nail down. Conservation group WildAid estimates as many as 73 million sharks are caught worldwide each year, yielding as much as $476m in shark fin value alone.
Sharks are likely to be the first marine creatures to go extinct because of human industry, as the predator at the top of the ocean’s food chain does not quickly reproduce, according to WildAid. Shark populations off Costa Rica have plummeted 60 per cent since 1991.
Rich fin history
Shark fin soup, or yu chi in Chinese, can fetch up to $150 a bowl, and is normally served at gala events and special occasions such as weddings and corporate meetings. The practice of consuming shark fin dates back to the Ming Dynasty and has long been a symbol of wealth and social stature in Chinese communities.
Spain, Taiwan, and Singapore are the world’s largest exporters of shark fin exported to Hong Kong – the shark fin soup capital of the world. In 2008, Spain exported 2.6 million kilograms of shark fin to Hong Kong.
“Dolphins are cute and they smile at you, people like them. If you want to save dolphins, people will get behind that. But sharks eat people, are vicious, and so no one cared.”
– Randall Arauz, anti-shark fin activist
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and a cadre of suited ministers recently signed a decree banning the practice in all forms in the small Central American nation. Despite similar bans in the EU, Canada, and South Africa, the practice continues unabated.
The new rules include the inspection of all sharks upon landing to verify that fins are “naturally attached”. Fishing licenses will now be revoked if regulations are violated.
“This government is making a grand investment in the strengthening and protection of marine resources,” said Chinchilla.
The president said about $10m will be earmarked for a new radar system to help the Coast Guard better patrol protected waters.
British billionaire Richard Branson, who has highlighted the cause, attended the ceremony, noting that Costa Ricans have been “outraged for a long time about the slaughter of the species”.
Randall Arauz, president of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project (Pretoma), has fought against shark finning for nearly two decades. “I wanted to save sea turtles, and in saving sea turtles I stumbled upon the shark finning industry,” he said.
“Taiwanese ships were wiping out the leatherback population, and I began to wonder what the Taiwanese were doing in the Pacific. They were here to catch shark fins. But what I found is that no one cared. Dolphins are cute and they smile at you, people like them. If you want to save dolphins, people will get behind that. But sharks eat people, are vicious, and so no one cared.”
The Pacific port town of Puntarenas, Costa Rica is the Wild West of shark finning. With brackish water and gray sand, it is a far cry from the gorgeous shore towns and resorts elsewhere along the coast.
Men with automatic weapons in guard towers watch over the dock’s walls surrounded by razor wire, as countless shark fins dry in the midday sun atop corrugated tin roofs. After receiving tip-offs from locals, Arauz used to hoist himself atop the industrial park roofs and film the arrival of fins in small dinghies at dawn. But he stopped because of the danger.
If a provision protecting hammerhead sharks is adopted in March, it will go a long way towards ending the trade of shark fins worldwide.
Last year, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay – star of “Hell’s Kitchen” – attempted to film the shark fin factory. He was reportedly doused with gasoline and threatened with weapons, bringing international awareness to the issue.
Environmental crusader Captain Paul Watson’s arrest in Germany in May also highlighted shark finning. The leader of the Sea Shepherd group was detained on charges of attempted shipwrecking after ramming a boat off the coast of Guatemala that he claimed was scalping sharks.
With the support of well-knowns such as Ramsay, Branson, and Watson, shark finning has begun to garner global attention, finally forcing the hands of world governments to act.
Hope for hammerheads
For Arauz, though, the true denouement of his life’s work will occur this March in Bangkok, Thailand at the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
CITES was established in 1975 to monitor the international trade of flora and fauna, to help ensure the survival of various wildlife species. While participation is voluntary, all 176 countries party to the CITES convention are legally bound by it.
“One way to combat shark finning is through international commerce,” said Arauz. “Hammerhead [shark] fins are the most valuable. We respect predators like Jaguars, we are trying to build this respect for Hammerheads.”
If a provision protecting hammerhead sharks is adopted in March, it will go a long way towards ending the trade of shark fins worldwide, he said.
So far Arauz has collected 7,000 signatures on a petition from Costa Ricans who oppose shark finning, and another 10 from Costa Rican lawmakers to bring to the conference.
“The world is looking finally. It is time we close these loopholes,” said Arauz.