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  • Writer's pictureFranklin Vega

Illegal manta ray fishing is binational: Ecuador-Peru

Illegal manta ray fishing has been documented in southern Ecuador and northern Peru. Manta ray wings are found in fishing ports despite the fact that it is a protected species. Along with manta ray wings, shark fins are trafficked by land and sea; the collection point is Puerto Pizarro, 15 minutes from Tumbes.

Part of the pectoral fins of manta rays, of the genus Mobula, in a truck on Zorritos beach, northern Peru. Photo: Franklin Vega

Saturday April 15, 2023. It is 06:45 on the beach of Zorritos, a fishing village in the department of Tumbes, in northern Peru. A few fishing boats unload their catch, dozens of frigates and a few pelicans flutter around waiting for their share. A dozen meters away, several trucks with wagons full of ice are waiting to take the catch of the day.

Next to one of those vehicles, parts of a fish protrude from red plastic drawers or drawers that, from a distance, look like shark fins. A little closer, doubts are cleared. They are not fins, they are manta ray “wings” and they are already inside one of the trucks precariously covered with blocks of ice.

Photographs are quickly taken and the load is verified: eight large “wings” more than a meter long, four small fins like those located on the side of the mouth of mantas. To one side, inside the van, are the gills stacked up; It is an almost shapeless mass, it is not possible to know how many there are or estimate their weight, but they are distinguished by their intense red color and a visual texture similar to ground meat.

Hombre transportando mantarrayas en la playa

Fisherman loading ice onto one of the fishing boats at Zorritos Beach, northern Peru: Photo: Galo Paguay

Minutes later, the photos are sent to a manta biologist, who confirms that they are pectoral fins from the family Mobulidae, the manta ray family, or Móbulas as scientists call them.

In Peru, manta rays are protected by Ministerial Resolution No. 411-2015-Produce, which prohibits "the extraction of the giant manta ray species with any art or fishing gear and/or any other instrument, in marine waters under Peruvian jurisdiction."

Those responsible for the truck indicate that the "manta ray wings" were sold to a merchant, who will take them to Chiclayo for processing. It was not possible to know the name of the vessel that caught them or the total number of "wings" in the vehicle. According to the Ministry of Production of Peru, 104 artisanal fishermen with their boats are registered in Zorritos; and, in one of those boats the mantas were fished. Manta gills will take a longer journey; once dry, they are transferred to the port of Callao and then exported to China.

embarcaciones, botes en el océanos Perú

Detail of the fishing fleet of northern Peru. The majority of boats and fishing boats are made up of boats with a wooden hull and stationary motors conditioned as outboards, called pata-pata. Photo: Galo Paguay

Fishing for manta rays, cartilaginous fish related to sharks, is prohibited in Peru (and in Ecuador); however, they are caught just like sharks. This is something that the fishermen and the officials of the Ministry of Production of Peru recognize, but with reservation of the source or outside the camera. This is a typical open secret: manta rays, manta rays and guitarfish are caught despite being protected and are sold without major problems.

To find these manta ray fins, it was necessary to travel the northern beaches of Peru for a week, from Puerto Pizarro to the fishing village of Órganos, looking for signs of fishing for this protected species. Why look there for manta rays? Because in Peru, specifically in Chiclayo, three dishes are prepared with the meat of manta rays, rays and guitar fish: stingray tortilla, the chiringuito (a kind of Peruvian cebiche, but with dried fish) or to make manta stew with its fresh meat.

Following the trail of illegal manta ray fishing stems from reports of illegal fishing in Machalilla, on the coast of Ecuador. Since 2020 there have been reports of the capture of manta rays, especially between the months of June to October, when it is more frequent to find them near the island of La Plata in the Machalilla National Park or in Bajo Copé.

pesca de mantarrayas en el mar

Capture of a manta ray by a fishing boat in northern Peru. Usually, fishermen use spears to catch manta rays. Photo: private archive.

The presence of the mantas coincides with the arrival of the cold waters of the Humboldt current from northern Peru. “It's not that we know too much about the migration of matrays, but we do know that manta rays roam the sea off the coast of Peru and Ecuador. One even went to the Galapagos Islands. We have managed to tag two manta rays.”, comments Krestin Fasberg, director of the NGO Planeta Océano in Peru, who along with other activists achieved legal protection for manta rays. In the note of this link, a brief review.

Just two tagged manta rays may not seem like much, but in April 2022, five technicians and scientists from the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the San Francisco de Quito University and the Fundación Megafauna Marina del Ecuador carried out a manta ray monitoring and tagging expedition in the south and east of Isabela Island and marked six with acoustic devices and four with satellite devices. A total of 10 manta rays, both from Fasberg's team, also provide key clues that show how this is a binational species, just like its fishing.

decomiso de aletas de mantarraya

In March 2023, the Ecuadorian Navy seized six manta ray fins and 4 hammerhead sharks. Photo: Ecuadorian Navy

That is to say, the knowledge of this species advances, painfully like the traffic and the illegal fishing. In March 2023, the Ecuadorian Navy seized six manta ray fins and 4 hammerhead sharks, both protected species, in the sea off Puerto Bolívar, El Oro province, south of Ecuador. On Friday, May 25, a photographer posted a photo of a ray and a hammerhead shark caught on Canoa beach, north of Manabí.

These were not isolated events, as Ecuador's environmental authorities tend to describe illegal fishing. In June 2022, the Ecuadorian Navy seized 600 kg of manta rays in Anconcito, Santa Elena province, just 150 km or 80 nautical miles as the crow flies from the town of Zorritos, in northern Peru.

In Ecuador, Ministerial Agreement No. MPCEIP-SRP-2022-0078-A issued by the Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investment and Fisheries, establishes a total ban on the sale of manta rays.

mural con aletas de mantarraya

Mural in the fishing village of Zorritos. It is the only cultural manifestation that refers to blankets. In the rest of the pools, sculptures and murals, they are dolphins, fish, shells, the fauna represented. Photo: Galo Paguay

In all the seizures of mantas in Ecuador, the response of the fishermen is that they are "exported" to Peru. When touring the fishing villages of northern Peru, ray and manta ray meat is not locally desired. In all the restaurants and inns visited, they asked for dishes with manta rays, the answer was "go to Chiclayo, they prepare the manta ray there." When going through the restaurants in Tumbes, the answer was the same. "The ray meat is of low quality, we do not work with that fish." However, in restaurants in Chiclayo, department of Lambayeque, the average price of a ray tortilla dish is 30 soles (USD 8) and about 200 grams of dried ray or manta ray meat are used.

Chiclayo is eight hours from Huaquillas (border between Ecuador and Peru). In this city you only have to choose the restaurant and order: the tortilla de raya or the beach bar; these are the main dishes and are considered representative of the local gastronomy together with the dried duck. The stew is only made if they get the fresh meat at the Santa Rosa fish market, which is 40 minutes away. There the fishing work begins at 04:00 every day: it is common to find rays and manta ray wings that are sold to merchants who process or dry them.

The preparation process of the stingray tortilla in a restaurant in Chiclayo, north of Peru, click on the arrow to see more images. From the dried meat to the served dish that costs 30 soles (USD 8). Photos: Environmental Log

One of the merchants in Santa Rosa (Chiclayo, Peru) acknowledged that the manta ray wings come from Ecuador, but that since the beginning of 2022 the quantity offered has decreased. Meanwhile, in Chiclayo's restaurants, dried stingray meat is part of the daily pantry and they say they prefer locally caught fish for its flavor. However, once dried, the difference between manta ray wings and rays caught in Ecuador or Peru disappears. In the restaurants of the department of Lambayeque they proudly offer the tortilla de raya. Questions about whether it is a protected species are not mentioned.

In Tumbes there are 13 judicial processes for confiscations of sharks

decomiso de mantarrayas

On December 14, 2022, the National Superintendence of Customs and Tax Administration (SUNAT) of Peru seized 7,000 dry shark fins that "were transferred without documentation proving their legal entry" along with manta ray fins. Photo: SUNAT

It is at this point, in the fish markets of the department of Lambayeque, where manta ray fishing in the north of Peru joins with those caught and smuggled from Ecuador. In the Provincial Prosecutor's Office Specialized in Environmental Matters of Tumbes, 13 files were found filed between September 2020 and October 2021. With a total of 21,107 tons of sharks and 2.6 tons of dry fins.

Of the 13 reported cases, it was possible to obtain the testimony of one of those involved, who acknowledged that the dried fins were purchased in the Province of El Oro, in southern Ecuador and that they were sent by sea to Puerto Pizarro (Tumbes, Peru).

From the interviews conducted for this report, the laundering mechanism in Peru is to declare that both sharks and fins are the result of bycatch. For this, once they have the caches, they request permits or mobilization guides from the local authorities for small amounts. In order to legalize irregular importation gradually.

The lack of verification of cargo trucks that cross through the Huaquillas Binational Border Assistance Center (CEBAF), which has been in operation since 2011, is evident. We accompany two truck crossing processes with fresh fish. When asking what kind of fish they transported to Peru, the answer was several in a dry tone. When looking at the forms presented, names such as marlin, marlin, croaker, swordfish were spotted... The process, the review of the paperwork, takes about 10 minutes, then they go to the vehicle and continue on their way.

27,000 people per month and 1,500 vehicles pass through the Huaquillas CEBAF, according to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Works. In addition, according to figures from the Central Bank of Ecuador, 4,165 tons of fresh fish were exported to Peru in 2022 from Huaquillas for a value of 1.3 million dollars and until March 2023 there are 80 tons for a value of 56,500 dollars. Part of these exports were confiscated in Peru for transporting protected species and some are those that are prosecuted in Tumbes.

The lack of control is so evident in the Huaquillas CEBAF that the new Minister of Public Works, César Rohon, ordered a control of all vehicles entering Ecuador from Peru. But what about the trucks that leave with thousands of tons of fish? Who verifies that they are the declared species? An interview with Rohon was requested, but no response was received until the publication of this note.

Fin and manta smuggling routes between Ecuador and Peru

ruta del comercio de mantarrayas

Map of manta ray fin and wing smuggling routes between Ecuador and Peru. Google Earth map.

By land declared as other types of fresh fish. At the border control, the controls are random and for two nights it was evident that no verification of the shipments was carried out and sharks, fins and manta ray wings are introduced there.

By land in ground transportation. Dry fins arrive in small quantities (up to 10 kilograms) that are sent as luggage on transport buses. They are collected in Tumbes and then sent to Lima in trucks or other buses.

By sea, in fishing boats that dock in the mangrove area of ​​Puerto Pizarro. Testimonies were obtained on how shark fins and manta ray wings arrive in jute sacks on boats from Ecuador and are transferred to Peruvian boats.

How many sharks are caught in Ecuador?

tiburones sin aletas en Ecuador

In 2022, 1,079 tons of sharks were exported from Ecuador; Of this, 64 percent corresponds to the Ecuadorian industrial longline fleet, which is made up of vessels with steel hulls. While the remaining 36 percent is caught by the wooden-hulled longline fleet, the mother vessels. Photo: Franklin Vega

Regarding the smuggling of manta ray and shark fins, how many sharks are caught in Ecuador?

There are no conclusive figures. Reports of what is declared can only be found in Fisheries Landing Control and Monitoring Certificates of the Fisheries Control Directorate of the Undersecretariat of Fisheries Resources of the Ministry of Production.

In 2022, 2,719 tons of sharks were caught, corresponding to 112,563 sharks, and of these, 1,790 tons were exported. But when they are separated by the type of shark fishing fleet, 64 percent of the 1,079 tons exported corresponds to the Ecuadorian industrial longline fleet. Made up of steel-hulled vessels and the remaining 36 percent is caught by the longline fleet with wooden-hulled vessels, known as mother vessels.

However, the owners of longline vessels consulted classify these data as partial, since shark catches by artisanal or fiber vessels are not considered. “Consider that there are close to 8,000 thousand fibers, which catch an average of one shark a week and only fish 26 weeks of the year. There are 208,000 sharks that are not accounted for”, comments a captain who requests the reserve of the source.

Point of view:

Our manta rays and fins are smuggled into Peru

Cristina Cely, activist against illegal fishing

Cristina Celi

In this link enlace the audio with the commentary on the trafficking of shark fins and manta rays.

This report was possible thanks to the contribution of several people and institutions. For them our gratitude, we consider their contribution as support for independent environmental journalism. Nature and its people need freedom of expression and this is only possible if there are enough resources to investigate traffic.

Once again, thank you


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