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  • Writer's pictureFranklin Vega

In Ecuador numbers of the bloody business of shark’s fins do not add up

Sharks ready to be butchered and finned at Tarqui beach in Manta, Ecuador. This fishing town is known as the tuna capital of the world and is also the main port where sharks are landed and their fins are sold. Photo: Franklin Vega

In Ecuador, 85% of tuna fishing comes from the high seas and from the catches of longline boats, which involves the bycatch of sharks, which in this South American country is not prohibited and does not have a maximum limit. The illegal fishing of manta rays is also not controlled.

Sharks are caught for their fins, which are cut off and, once dried, exported to China. Its meat is sold as a secondary product under other names such as Corvina or Tallfin croaker (Micropogonias altipinnis), Mahi Mahi (Coryphaena hippurus), or Black marlin (Istiophorus). Shark meat under other names is offered in markets in the highlands of Ecuador.

Due to the lack of fishing traceability, there are no complete statistics on the export of captured shark fins, whose quantity does not coincide with that authorized by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE).

One of the ways to protect sharks is the control and regulation of their international trade. This is the objective of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and with this form of protection, 18 species of sharks are registered on its lists known as appendices. Each CITES signatory country must keep a record of the shark species traded.

The MAATE authorized in 2021 -with the issuance of 89 permits from CITES the export of 770 tons of fins with a value of 24 million dollars, but Ecuador’s Customs only registered the departure of 277 tons in 2021. The remaining 498 tons, with an approximate value of 15 million dollars, are not registered. All CITES permits indicated had a validity date of 30 days after their issuance.

In this second installment on the high seas, we show that the lack of fishing traceability is reflected in incomplete statistics on the export of shark fins that do not coincide with the amount authorized by the MAATE. In the previous article, the origin of Ecuador's fishing was addressed, which in the case of tuna and for the catches of longline boats, comes from the high seas, 85% of the time. These catches on the high seas involve the bycatch of sharks (a loophole, even if sharks are the target catch) as bycatch in Ecuador is not prohibited by law and no maximum limit has been set.

A bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus) along with other shark species pile up by the hundreds on the beaches of Tarqui in Manta. Their bodies are ready to be chopped and sold as croaker filets in national markets while fins will be cut off to be dried and stored until export to Asia. Photo: Franklin Vega

General numbers of bycatch

In 2021, Ecuador exported, according to the National Customs Service of Ecuador (SENAE, by its acronym in Spanish), 447 tons of blue shark (Prionace glauca). It is listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, (IUCN) and red sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus),classified as Endangered by the IUCN with a declared value of 1.7 million dollars. Furthermore, 540 tons of “cazones (another name for sharks) and other sharks”, a general tariff heading, left Ecuador in the same year declaring an export value of 396,137 dollars. To these figures shipments of 277 tons of shark fins worth US$8.8 million must be added.

These numbers show that in Ecuador shark fishing is not minimal as Bruno Leone, president of the National Chamber of Fisheries (CNP) has repeatedly announced to Bitácora Ambiental. In total, sharks and their fins represent a legal business of US$10.5 million according to the available data for 2021 by SENAE.

However, the precise volumes of the hideous trade of fins are unknown. Fins are sent to Asia for the preparation of a soup dish that can cost up to US$300. Their nutritional or medicinal value as documented in various publications is unknown but the delicacy is prized as a sign of high status. In addition to not providing nutrients, the fins contain a high concentration of heavy metals such as mercury, as indicated by a study by the University of Florida, United States, published in August 2020.

In the same way, it is difficult to know with certainty how many sharks correspond to those tons of fins or the number of whole sharks that were exported, because there are no official records by the number of specimens, either in the SENAE or in the MAATE.

However, according to a specialist in CITES permits, who requested anonymity, only with the physical verification of the fins is it possible to know how many sharks they correspond to. In 2021, MAATE issued 89 CITES permits for 279,331 sets of fins. Based on this information, the specialist estimates that they come from 1.14 million sharks with an approximate value of 24 million dollars.

Screenshot of one of the 89 CITES permits issued by the MAATE. The information on the names of the exporters is omitted in order to avoid judicial requests.

The following graph shows the Ecuadorian exporting companies with CITES permits issued by the MAATE.

Graph of shark fin exporting companies in 2021. It was elaborated by Bitácora Ambiental with data from MAATE and CITES permits.

If you click on this link you can obtain the percentage exported by each company from Ecuador and separate it by destination: Peru and Spain. Of the 10 companies that cover 98% of total exports, there are 6 companies from Ecuador, two from China, one from Spain, and one from Japan.

SENAE and MAATE were consulted about this inconsistency and others in the fishing figures, but as of the closing of this edition, no response was obtained. The MAATE authorized the export of 770 tons of fins and the Customs records only show the departure of 277 tons. That is, there is no cross-control and export permits are invalid. The remaining 498 tons of shark fins have, in essence, disappeared from public records.

An informant from Guayaquil, who requested his name be withheld, said that fins with CITES permits are smuggled across the border into Peru along with manta rays ‘wings” (of the genus Mobula) caught by some artisanal fishermen. Manta rays are protected by Ecuadorian law.

In Bitácora Ambiental we have reported on the bleaching mechanism of the fins that leave via land to Peru. Faced with this situation, Gustavo Manrique, MAATE’s minister in an interview with Bitacora Ambiental, offered in September 2021 to create a new legal framework for the protection of sharks while acknowledging that 280,000 sharks are fished annually in the country.

Unofficially we know that there is a draft ministerial agreement to expand the protection of sharks, but we do not know the details. At the United Nations Ocean Conference in Portugal last June it was one of the topics proposed by the MAATE, but it was not achieved and, to date and despite insistence, MAATE spokespersons have not responded on this issue.

Industrial longline vessel in the harbor of Manta, Manabí province, on the coast of Ecuador. Photo: Franklin Vega

Longline or “Nodriza” ships at the port of Manta, Manabí province, Ecuador. Photo: Franklin Vega

Why does shark fin trafficking continue?

One of the incentives for trafficking of fins is the lack of sanctions. In 2020 in Hong Kong 26 tons of illegal dried shark fins from Ecuador were discovered by chance. In Ecuador, the company responsible for their trade only faced an administrative sanction of 3,860 dollars by the Ministry of Production, despite the fact that the total value of the shipment was 1.1 million dollars. (see this link the details).

Although it is the truth that this administrative fine was imposed for being a fraudulent export, there are no results of the later legal proceedings initiated by MAATE concerning the wildlife crime. Not only is there no punishment for the killing of 38,500 sharks, but the MAATE issued more export authorizations to this company in 2021, as can be seen in the CITES permits. This is another unanswered question for Gustavo Manrique.

More facilities for impunity

Ecuadorian legislation does not officially allow shark fishing but it does permit bycatch. Yet, the legislation does not put a limit on bycatch or incidental catch.. In this sense, shark catch is not regulated and therefore part of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. This is confirmed by Cristina Cely, a specialist in IUU fishing: “The capture of sharks is directed and is disguised as bycatch; it is unregulated fishing. How is it possible that there is no limit to the so-called bycatch? With that figure, everything from a shark that dies by accident to the hundreds that are fished by industrial fishing vessels and slaughtered on the high seas is legalized.”

In 2021 despite the information on shark finning and the rampant illegal trade, the Ministry of Production issued the Non-detriment Finding (NDF) for Pelagic thresher (Alopias pelagicus), bigeye thresher (Alopias superciliosus) and silky or mico shark (Carcharhinus falciformis). The NDF is a document required by CITES to verify the legal origin of the animals and to ensure that their export does not threaten the survival of the species.

International efforts to protect sharks continue. On November 14 in Panama, the CITES CoP19 meeting will be held and it has been suggested that all species of sharks from the families Carcharhinidae (Requiem sharks) and Sphyrnidae (hammerhead sharks) be included in Appendix 2 as a measure to prevent their overfishing.

The CITES CoP19’s logo. Sharks from the families Carcharhinidae (Requiem sharks) and Sphyrnidae (hammerhead sharks) may be included in Appendix 2.

Where are sharks caught?

The following map shows the fishing locations of both the tuna fleet (blue circles) and the longline boats (orange circles). As can be seen, much of the fishing is done on the high seas for both the tuna fleet and the longline boats, both types of boats catch sharks incidentally.

As presented, there is no official data on the places or the volume of specific catches for sharks, but from information compiled in different documents, the scheme presented on the map was made.

The biologists, the fishing technicians, and the owners of the longline boats, all agree that sharks are mainly fished on the high seas.

In this link you can download the map in PDF format:

Download PDF • 1.50MB

Who catches sharks?

Bitácora Ambiental has reviewed the fishing records of 12 longline boats and 60% recorded more sharks caught than other species such as dorado, sailfish or tuna,but the magnitude of the catches is not officially known. The logs are classified as confidential by the Ministry of Production of Ecuador.

The consulted owners of longline boats are aware of the problem and are looking for alternatives, but this implies a high cost of adapting the fishing gear so that the sharks do not die if caught. “With special hooks that cost between three and five dollars, we would need about two thousand dollars per trip or more just for that element to prevent the sharks from dying in the longlines,” said a longline boat owner who requested the reservation of his name. In addition, the informant indicates that 70 longline boats work in Manta exclusively for shark fishing. These free-rider boats are not controlled by either the Ministry of Production or the Ecuadorian Navy.

It is not just longliners that are responsible for shark fishing; the Ecuadorian tuna fleet is also involved. However, Bruno Leone, president of the National Chamber of Fisheries (CNP), minimizes the shark catch in the tuna fleet and in general in the country's fishing industry. “I have seen statistics that in Ecuador 6,000 tons of sharks are caught per year, that is 1% of all fishing. There are other countries like Indonesia, Spain, and the United States that fish 126,000 tons of sharks. In the tuna fleet, the bycatch is 1.8% of the total fishing. Which represents 4,500 tons of fish that are not the objective of fishing; among these are sharks, billfish, and other species. If anything, only one shark dies per set,” Leone said.

With the data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report Bycatch and fish other than tuna caught in purse seines (most of the tuna vessels) in the world (it is determined that on average 0.5% of the bycatch corresponds to various species of sharks and by that measure, it is deduced that the Ecuadorian tuna fleet would have incidentally caught 1,363 tons of sharks in 2021. What does not exist is specific information on the incidental fishing of sharks carried out by Ecuadorian tuna vessels and longliners.

Industrial tuna boats use a purse seine that stretches for hundreds of meters and skirts around the schools. The mother ships are much smaller and use the long line, which is a long line from which hundreds of hooks hang.

Regarding the bycatch of sharks by tuna vessels from different countries that operate in the Pacific, information generated by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) indicates that between 2015 and 2018 this was 410 tons of silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis). This figure is low if it is compared only with shark exports from Ecuador, which in 2021 amounted to 1,089 tons of sharks according to SENAE, or 1,363 tons of sharks as calculated above as fished in that year incidentally.

Víctor Restrepo, scientific vice president of the International Foundation for the Sustainability of Seafood (ISSF, in English) in statements to Environmental Bitácora recognized that the incidence of incidental fishing of sharks in the tuna industry is not negligible. “Because they are such large fisheries (seine net fishing), they have an impact. As for the longline, in many cases the capture of sharks is their objective, since they are fished for human consumption."

Due to the fact that in Ecuador there is no control system that reports transparently and publicly on the origin of the fishing, it is not possible to establish how many sharks, of those that are exported and consumed in Ecuador, come from the bycatch of purse seiners. fleet or tuna vessels and longliners.

Given this, the WWF Spain recommends in “The Shark and Ray meat network: a deep dive into a global affair 2021” to put in place legislation to harmonize landing, market, and trade categories, and to drastically improve traceability systems. In the EU for example, regulations on seafood labeling – which specify species, gear, and origin – should be fully implemented so consumers can make informed choices about their purchases.

In the European Union, for example, the regulations on the labeling of seafood products determine what must be specified: the species, fishing gear, and origin. These provisions are fully implemented so that consumers can make informed decisions about their purchases.

But as we have described in the previous note, in Ecuador the traceability of fishing is a longstanding issue.

“Despite the fact that Ecuador has a regulation for the Fishing Law and that it was elaborated with the contribution of the European Union, it does not apply or contemplate measures to protect sharks, such as a maximum limit for bycatch,” says Cristina Cely.

One of Ecuador's 320 longline fishing boats in the port of Manta. Photo: Franklin Vega

How does the longline fleet fish?

According to an anonymous source, the Ministry of Production registered 320 mother ships or longliners; which tow more than three thousand fiberglass boats. These fishing boats, from 7 to 12 meters long, use the longline and take their catch to the holds of the Mother boat which has a capacity of 64 tons of fish in its holds.

According to the law, the longliners, which are also called motherships (because they tow up to 10 fishing boats) and carry out three-week fishing trips, of which two weeks remain on the high seas, are classified as industrial, however, the 320 registered have an average length of 22 meters. This is one of the issues that the owners of the ships (with wooden hulls) request be reformed in the Fishing law because the volume of its fishing is lower than the industrial ones.

However, the owners of the longliners do not want to be considered industrial. Mariana Quijije, fishing leader, has pointed out that 18-meter wooden boats cannot be considered industrial. “This measure benefits other sectors (industrial fishing)”. Despite this, longline vessels are responsible for catching thousands of sharks; they cause a great impact on the marine ecosystem. Bitácora Ambiental has published several reports on the impact of fishing by longliners.

“The longline fleet is responsible for almost 90% of the total artisanal fishery in Ecuador. The Ministry of Production will never tell you how many sharks are caught because some shipowners also are involved in drug and fuel trafficking. You better watch out, if you are going to keep asking”, warned the informant. The article in this link gives an account of IUU fishing in Ecuador.

Shark species with controlled export

In the photo a silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis). Photo was taken from Oceanothèque

The common names of sharks change port by port. Each group of fishermen and merchants names them according to their physical characteristics. However, the most frequent name for sharks in Ecuador is tollo or toyo and under this name are all species of sharks.

The species regulated by the MAATE and for which CITES permits are issued for export are detailed below. Once included in the CITES list, countries have the obligation to establish strict controls for their international trade.

Alopias pelagicus: thresher, bitter or tail shark listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) list.

Alopias superciliosus: bigeye thresher shark, thresher shark, rabón or rabudo is found in tropical seas and is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN list.

Isurus oxyrinchus: mako shark, common or shortfin mako shark, red shark, listed as Endangered by the IUCN.

Carcharhinus falciformis: silky or mico shark listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.

Based on the data collected for this report, it can be inferred that Ecuador urgently needs transparency and public access to detailed fishing data for all fisheries.

Sharks are fished to export their fins and the official figures for this business do not coincide with what is authorized by the MAATEand the export records. A gap of 15 million dollars in fishing records is one of the elements that show that the shark marketing chain is neither controlled nor transparent. That figure, compared to the contribution of fishing to the national accounts appears negligible, but when considering the environmental damage that leaves marine ecosystems without top predators, it is clear the loss is incalculable.

This report was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.


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