After two Supreme Court rulings, a Comptroller General’s Office ruling, four rulings from the Government Attorney’s Office and a recommendation from the Legislative Assembly, Costa Rica’s fishing authority appears finally to agree to ban a controversial practice called shark finning – albeit with reservations.
Supplying the market for shark fin soup, a supposed aphrodisiac in eastern nations like China and Taiwan, shark finning involves the severing of a shark’s cartilage-rich fins and dumping the body, often still alive, overboard.
Without its fins, the shark sinks and drowns. The practice has been globally condemned. Shark populations are plummeting world-wide, with the hammerhead and tiger sharks the most recent additions to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list.
In late August, the board of directors for the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), which is charged with regulating incoming boats and their cargo, voted to ban the practice, effective immediately, requiring all sharks to be landed with their fins entirely attached.
INCOPESCA President Carlos Villalobos, however, told the daily La Nación that his agency made the decision “under protest.”
The country’s Fisheries Law, passed in 2005, requires that sharks be delivered to port with fins attached (TT, July 8, 2005). INCOPESCA had tried to interpret “attached” to mean held to the shark’s body with tape or string. After the Government Attorney’s Office repeatedly ruled against INCOPESCA’s interpretation, INCOPESCA continued to allow the sharks to be landed with the fins partially cut, so they could be folded against the shark’s body, thereby fitting more sharks in a boat’s hold.
Villalobos told La Nación that it was necessary for fishermen to cut the fins in order to bleed the sharks, otherwise the shark meat would become contaminated with toxic substances.
“It is a public health problem,” he said, adding that he would ask the Government Attorney’s Office if the law would allow partially cut fins.
But advocacy groups aren’t buying the argument.
“That statement is ridiculous,” replied Randall Arauz, of the environmental organization PRETOMA, which has led efforts to stop shark finning in Costa Rica. “Sharks do not have any major veins going through the fins. That’s like saying you have to cut off a pig’s ears to bleed it.”
Arauz alleged that INCOPESCA was trying to placate the Taiwanese fishing fleets by allowing fins to be partially cut.
“The national fleet lands the fins intact and has no problem, and they land them intact in Colombia and El Salvador,” he said. “It’s not a problem elsewhere.”
Arauz said he had been surprised to hear of the ruling, and doubted it would be very effectively enforced.
PRETOMA has been pushing to force INCOPESCA to comply with another part of the fishing law that requires sharks to be offloaded at public docks, or private docks that provide a permanent presence of public inspection officials.
According to Arauz, more than 79 boats flying international flags illegally offloaded 2,400 tons of sharks at private docks last year.
Private docks have begun allowing government officials to enter the docks for inspections, but that does not comply with law nor does it assure that no shark fins are being unloaded, Arauz said.
“As long as we have the wide and illegal open use of the private docks, no regulation will have any teeth,” he said. “If INCOPESCA keeps on choosing which laws to abide by and which ones not to, we’re never going to protect the sharks or any other fishery.”