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With only spines attached, shark fins come ashore

Despite recent measures to crack down on the practice of shark finning, Costa Rican fishermen and environmentalists believe that foreign fleets are once again using methods to evade Costa Rican fishing laws and regulations.

In recent months, three Taiwanese ships landed shark fins attached only to the shark’s spine at the public dock in Puntarenas. The sharks’ flesh was shaved away from the sharks’ spines, leaving only skeletons attached to full fins.

Last year, the Costa Rican Agriculture Ministry (MAG) and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) barred foreign fleets from unloading at private docks.  Instead they must land at public docks, where inspectors can enforce the law (TT, Nov. 30, 2010).

Shark finning consists of slicing off sharks’ cartilage-filled fins – worth hundreds of dollars per kilogram in some Asian markets – and dumping the still-alive sharks back into the ocean, where they bleed to death. With this technique, ships had more room to store only fins. A public backlash begun nearly a decade ago helped ban the practice in Costa Rica. However, shark fishing remains legal in the country.

Today Costa Rican regulations stipulate that only three authorized cuts can be made when shark fishing: the head, the entrails and a partial cut to allow the bending of the fin. Yet recent cases in Puntarenas have shown that the law has left grey areas that fishermen exploit.

The Taiwanese boat Wang Jia Men was the first ship discovered using the new practice of landing only skeletons. In May, the foreign-flagged ship landed in Puntarenas and refused to unload its cargo. The ship left and set course for El Salvador. Five days later, the ship was back in Puntarenas.

The Wang Jia Men contained 36 sharks with no flesh on the sides of the spines. According to Incopesca Executive Director Luis Gerardo Dobles, it was the first time that the fisheries institute had seen the new tactic. An Incopesca inspector let the ship unload and reported that 36 sharks had landed without full carcasses.

When members of the Pacific Coast Fishermen’s Union found out, the ship had already been allowed to sell the fins. The union, made up of Costa Rican fishermen, strongly opposes the practice.

A second ship, the Wang Jia Men 89, arrived four months later. Before unloading, ship representative Kathy Tseng, who also faced charges of human trafficking last April (TT, April 16, 2010), sent a letter to Incopesca asking what the outcome would be if the ship contained shark fins attached to the spine, but with little or no flesh. Tseng said that the meat had been used as bait to catch other sharks and as food for the crew.

Dobles, after consulting with his legal and technical department, allowed the Wang Jia Men 89 crew to unload product that had complied with Costa Rican regulations, and blocked the unloading of shark skeletons. He ordered customs officials to destroy those sharks, which totaled 145. He did not pursue criminal charges against anyone involved.

According to Dobles, 6 percent of the total load was wasted.

“We believe that Incopesca, through Dobles’ executive decision, is tolerating this practice. No one is punishing these ships, their representatives and their captains for not respecting the regulations stated in the fishing laws. We are sending the message that international fleets have a green light to do whatever they want and never get punished,” said Javier Catón, director of the Pacific Coast Fishermen’s Union and coordinator of the MAG commission that supervises the fishing industry.

Dobles said that punishing ship owners and captains with fines or prison would be misinterpreting the law. “This is not shark finning and the law does not say whether the shark body needs to have all of its meat. I applied the law and did not allow them to sell those sharks, which is already a great loss for those companies,” he said.

Last week, a new ship unloaded approximately 50 sharks in the same condition. The Wang Jia Men 88 landed 1,000 kg of sharks with only the spine and fins attached. The ship landed a total of 50,000 kg of shark.

The fishermen’s union was quickly notified of the situation and notified the Puntarenas Prosecutor’s Office.

“I personally think that we may be looking at a case of possession, transport and storage of illegal products, since the sharks were not fished under the Costa Rican regulations,” said Puntarenas Prosecutor Tatiana Chaves. “But this case is new and there is no jurisprudence to base it on. Right now we are leading an investigation and the ship has been detained until we make a decision,” she said.

Catón and MAG commission member William Flores are bringing this new practice to public light. “To me, this is clearly disrespecting the fishing law, since the fin is not attached to the entire body, but only a part of it,” Flores said.

“Most national fishermen respect the rules, but international fleets are affecting the reputation of the whole fishing sector that unloads on Pacific public docks,” Catón  said.

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