Leila Monroe, Staff Attorney, Oceans Program, San Francisco
Costa Rica is often applauded for its progressive environmental policies and peaceful democracy. I know it as a Mecca of sustainable tourism and perfect surf breaks. Yet the brutal, enormously profitable shark fin trade has prospered in Costa Rica’s waters and ports since the late-1990’s, making this tropical Central American country a key outpost in the global shark fin trade.
In the early 2000’s, former Costa Rican president Abel Pacheco attempted to crack down on the highly destructive market, but the lure of profit caused criminal elements to simply ignore the rules. The Taiwanese and Indonesian mafias purchased and operated their own private docks where the illegal cargo could be unloaded away from the prying eyes of government regulators. Costa Rican fishing boats were spotted illegally killing thousands of sharks in Colombian waters. Fin traders exploited loopholes in Costa Rican law to move fins into and out of the country. As many as 400,000 sharks were killed off Costa Rica last year for their fins.
Some of this was documented in Rob Stewart’s 2006 film Sharkwater. During the filming of this documentary the crew were pursued by gunboats for exposing their connection to the Costa Rican government. Then in late 2010, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and his crew were soaked in gasoline and threatened at gunpoint for attempting to film shark fins drying in the sun.
While INCOPESCA, the Costa Rican body in charge of regulating fishing practices, has long been lax about enforcing bans, with the strong support of citizen groups like Pretoma, the Costa Rican government has begun fighting back against the finning industry. The practice of finning has been technically illegal for quite some time, but corruption and poverty have undermined the rule of law.
Happily, things seem to be changing. President Chinchilla recently signed a decree mandating stronger protections for sharks by requiring that all sharks landed on Costa Rica’s shore be inspected to make sure they still have their fins attached. Violators will be subject to larger penalties. The law will also furnish the Coast Guard with better radar systems for detecting poachers. Even Sir Richard Branson weighed in to support these important changes.
Cartoon posted with permission from illustrator Phil Watson of Shaaark!
With 1/3 of shark species threatened with extinction and some shark populations have declined by 99%, we hope that the progress in Costa Rica is a sign that the tide is turning in time to save sharks. In March, the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), will consider adding ten new species of sharks to lists of animals for which international trade is restricted. Adding sharks like hammerheads and oceanic white tip to the CITES lists is a vital step, but we also must tackle the demand for fins. As long as consumers are willing to pay huge sums of money to eat shark fin soup, poachers will find a way to catch them.
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