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  • Writer's pictureFranklin Vega

It is not "illegal" but between Ecuador and Peru millions of shark fins are launder

The shark fin market is shared by Spain, Peru and Ecuador with 19%, 15% and 5% respectively. The main destination is China where a fin soup can cost up to $ 300 per plate. Ecuador has exported in the last eight years an annual average of 10 tons of shark fins worth 2 million dollars. In the first three months of 2021 this value is being exceeded.

Shark unloading on Manta beach. Photo: Private archive In 2020, shark fins were traded “legally” in the world for a value of 12 million dollars, while in 2019, the value was 36 million dollars. The top three exporters were Spain, Peru and Ecuador. This data is provided by the company ABRAMS world trade wiki, which is a business intelligence portal that collates billions of data from various sources such as the United Nations Comtrade and customs offices in various countries. The following graph shows the top 10 exporters of shark fins:

Screenshot from ABRAMS world trade wiki

The data for Ecuador were confirmed with the reports of exports from the Central Bank of Ecuador and the National Customs Service of Ecuador (SENAE by its acronym in Spanish). In the country, the declared export has increased every year since 2013, except in 2020 due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Andrea Colombo Cordero, National Director of SENAE since July 2020, said in Session No. 57 of the Commission of Biodiversity and Natural Resources of the National Assembly of Ecuador that between 2013 and October 2020, 748 tons of shark fins worth 14 million dollars have been exported.

Screenshot of session No. 57 of the Biodiversity Commission of the National Assembly of Ecuador on November 4, 2020.

So, what are the export numbers for fins?

In Ecuador, the value of exports of shark fins declared for 2020 was 1.2 million dollars (FOB value) with a weight of 30 tons, according to data from the National Customs Service of Ecuador (SENAE). The descriptions of the exports correspond to blue shark fins, the dry fin of yellowtail shark, dry anal fins of blue shark. All these exports are destined for Peru and traded through the Huaquillas border crossing.

Data available for 2021 on the export of shark fins shows that 86 tonnes worth $ 2.2 million have been shipped abroad as of March. In other words, in three months the volume has tripled compared to last year. This is clear because the borders reopen after the pandemic. Ecuador has exported in the last eight years an annual average of 10 tons worth 2 million dollars per year. That means that in the first three months of 2021 this average is being exceeded.

But this figure of 30 tons of shark fins, how much does it reflect the real and legal market in Ecuador? Questions remain unsolved as a single 26-ton illegal shipment was seized on May 6, 2020, in Hong Kong. That is, only this illegal shipment is 90% of what is declared by Ecuador Customs as legal exports. On that occasion, approximately 38,000 sharks were slaughtered for their fins.

If the data for this year is considered, the catch of sharks and the export of fins ¿are they increasing or are stored cargoes being traded? The answer was sought in the Ministry of the Environment and Water and in the Ministry of Production (the highest fishing authority in Ecuador). The only certain thing is the impact on marine life. The sharks being predators control the population of the fish on which they feed, thus maintaining the health of the aquatic ecosystems. Contrary to their false reputation for ferocity, they are delicate animals as they reach sexual maturity late and have few young. Hence the need to protect them arises.

Marcelo Mata, Minister of the Environment, in this regard pointed out that during his appointment he has not approved any export of shark bodies or trunks. He emphasized that “shark fins are an issue on which we are focusing, in the 40 days that remain my mandate. My management will have a clear and documented answer ”.

Shark fins cut off in the port of Manta. Photo: Private archive.

However, for a group of specialists consulted and who requested confidentiality, Ecuador has a greater share in the world market for shark fins because only what is legal is reported. Peru is in second place because it exports its own fins and also those that arrive illegally from Ecuador.

"In the illegal fin trade, confiscations represent approximately 10% of the business volume, because there is no constant control." César A. Ipenza Peralta, lawyer specialized in environmental issues.

The indications that the smuggling of shark fins to Peru is greater than legal exports are based on international seizures. These suspicions were confirmed on September 22, 2020, when the Peruvian Police confiscated eight tons of hammerhead and fox shark meat (protected species) in Zarumilla, in the border department of Túmbez. According to the Special Prosecutor for Environmental Matters (FEMA) of Peru, during 2020, 715 kilos of fins and 27 tons of shark bodies were seized in the District of Tumbes, Piura, Santa and Callao. Most of this contraband comes from Ecuador.

Shark fin detail at the Manta pier. The labels identify from which boat the load comes. Photo: Private archive.

Ipenza Peralta has closely followed the issue of the illicit trade in shark fins and bodies along with the illegal timber trade in Peru. He comments that since last year, thanks to the controls of the Peruvian Prosecutor's Office in the ports, the fin trade routes have changed from Ecuador. The strategy consists of making small shipments in suitcases or packages by public transport from the Peruvian highlands, sending boxes by post and collecting them in Lima; once they compile a large volume, they export them to Asia.

To combat the trafficking or illegal trade in shark fins and meat from endangered species, Ipenza points out that it is necessary to establish a coordination mechanism between the Ecuadorian and Peruvian prosecutors. "Having, for example, an information exchange system between the customs of the two countries would make it easier to identify exports and establish a registration system." Ina Suárez, FEMA prosecutor from Tumbes indicated that until now a meeting called by Interpol has been held between the Ecuador and Peru Prosecutors' Offices to coordinate actions against illegal trafficking from Ecuador.

In addition, Ipenza points out, it is necessary to analyze shark populations and species identification systems analyzing DNA, something that in Peru is already done in most ports, but which is not constant.

The hammerhead shark, a species that despite is threat is captured. Photos: Private archive

Manta beach. The hammerhead shark, a prohibited species is captured. Photos: Private archive

In addition to the fins that are sent to China where they are considered an exquisite delicacy, legal exports of shark meat are made from Ecuador. In 2020, 187 tons of shark meat were sent abroad. The exported species of the 14 tons are red shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) a protected species and 173 tons of water shark (Prionace glauca). The final destinations of the shark bodies were Spain and Portugal; in the commercial description of Isurus oxyrinchus it is branded as "Shark Mako, whole, frozen and its fins". In an upcoming report, exporters and routes to Europe will be analyzed.

The international trade of red shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means that to export this species requires authorization from the Ministry of the Environment and Water, which carries out an administrative verification of the documents. However, who has the obligation of the control is the Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fisheries, which is the fishing authority. Although the process is clear, as the photos presented here indicate, the authority does not monitor compliance with fishing classified as incidental.

It is important to emphasize that the Ministry of the Environment and Water denied several permits to shark meat exporting companies in September 2020 because they are protected species. The basis for the Ministry not granting the permit was that there were indications of fishing directed at sharks. In addition, the Ministry made observations on the study carried out by the Public Institute for Aquaculture and Fisheries Research of Ecuador (IPIAP for its acronym in Spanish). The most important observation about this study stressed that it should contemplate a historical analysis of the use of the shark species Isurus oxyrinchus but did not include it, arguing that the Undersecretary of Fisheries Resources did not provide complete data for the analysis of trade. We tried to obtain an interview with Minister Iván Ontaneda to clarify this and other points, but we received no response.

This investigation must be carried out on a mandatory basis when a species that is in its geographical distribution enters the CITES appendices and is called Non-Harmful Extraction Opinion (NDF). The Minister of the Environment and Water offered Bitácora Ambiental to expand the information on the trade-in shark bodies for next week and to indicate if the DENP is already available for the red shark.

Juan Cárdenas, Assemblyman member of the Biodiversity Commission, describes as shameful that Ecuador is part of the countries that export most fins. "Shark fishing is prohibited, with the so-called incidental fishing all illegal fishing is launder." He adds that the Biodiversity Commission tried to get the responsible ministerial authorities to clarify the issue. But it was only thanks to international pressure that they managed to get the ministers to appear before the Assembly, but without putting data or figures or concrete protection actions.

Meanwhile, shark meat is camouflaged in local markets

While the discussion and requests for a response in the Assembly continued, a tour along the beaches of Manabí was enough to see how hundreds of sharks of various species were landed, including protected ones such as the hammerhead shark. Some without heads, others with severed fins. The sharks end up in the markets of several cities such as the Mercado América in Quito, where it is common to find this fish on Thursdays and Sundays at dawn.

María José Mateo Calderón published a thesis at the San Francisco de Quito University entitled ¿Eating shark?: Molecular identification of shark meat for sale in markets and fishmongers in the Metropolitan District of Quito. It literally says “The results of the molecular identification showed that 26.67% of the collected fish samples belonged to different shark species. The species identified were Prionace glauca (60%), Carcharhinus falciformis (8%), and Alopias pelagicus (32%). This confirms that the sale of shark meat under another name is taking place in the Metropolitan District of Quito ”.

In the América market in Quito, it is common to find shark bodies that are sold as Corvina or other names. Photo: @TeodoroVega

Walter Bustos, former Director of the Galapagos National Park, mentions that in Ecuador the Regulatory State of the Port must be applied, with this mechanism, Ecuador could review the warehouses that pass through Ecuadorian waters or that lean to port to prevent shipments from being made of illegal fishing. Peru is the fishing ground for the Chinese fleet, where illegal fishing is collected and exported.

A moratorium on the commercialization of bycatch is on the table

Marcelo Mata, Minister of the Environment and Water, comments that during the 20 days that he is in charge of that State portfolio, he has not received requests to authorize exports of sharks, since the focal point of CITES operates there. Ecuador has several focal points for this Convention but it is the Ministry of the Environment and Water that authorizes de exports.

When asked if with these volumes of shark fishing and fin trade it is not feasible to declare a moratorium on the commercialization of both fins and shark bodies in Ecuador, he explained that as a citizen he agrees, but as “Minister, I must comply with the legal processes that are underway; The One Health organization made a complaint about the trafficking of shark fins and bodies, which is in process and upon having the report I will answer whether or not the moratorium is appropriate ”.

For its part, the National Chamber of Fisheries sent on April 7 an official communication, to the President of the Commission for Food Sovereignty and Development of the Agricultural and Fisheries sector, in which the Chamber "condemns of all kinds of illegal fishing activities, regulated and unregulated”, and it rejects not having been consulted on the draft for the reform of the Organic Code of the Environment which includes a transitory provision that prohibits the commercialization of all incidental fishing until the" Ministry of the Environment improve minimum standards on fishing gear and bycatch. "

Oficio Nº CNP-2021-332 Comisión Biodive
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The official document signed by Bruno Leone, textually states: “Establishing a prohibition for the commercialization of incidental fishing, such as the one that arises with literal D of section 7 of the aforementioned report, can cause very serious damage to the small sector and the economy of the country. Establishing a standard without the respective technical analysis, which is not adapted to the reality of the sector, would be a terrible mistake. Furthermore, if bycatch could not be traded, what would be its fate? Its destruction? In a country like ours, where malnutrition and access to high-quality protein are scarce, this would be irresponsible ”.

In direct communication with Bitácora Ambiental Bruno Leone, President of the National Fisheries Chamber, states that incidental fishing is of two types: commercial fish such as dorado, wahoo, bonito and those corresponding to vulnerable species (sea turtles, stingrays and some species of sharks) on which they claim they have regulations; and that the percentage of bycatch in the purse-seine fleet (which fish for tuna) is 2% and that in the vessels that use longline the percentage of bycatch is 20%.

For various environmental and research groups, the moratorium is necessary until there is true control of the different fisheries. At the moment, legal exports intersect with informal mechanisms that make the control and traceability of fishery products impossible. Ecuador cannot be a benchmark for illegal fishing.

Note 1: An interview was requested with the Minister of Production Iván Ontaneda, but until the closing of this edition there was no response to the request.

Note 2: The President of the National Chamber of Fisheries Bruno Leone committed to Bitácora Ambiental to broaden the issues of shark meat exports.


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