Monday, October 20, 2014

Illegal Fishing: A Shark Challenge

Guest Blog
by Lindsay Jennings

Forget the idea of an eye-patch wearing, sword-wielding, swashbuckling pirate. Pirates these days traverse the oceans not for gold, but for fish. And some of the most lucrative of those fish are sharks, with prices reaching upwards of $1,000/kg for fins. Shark products (fins, meat, oil, teeth, liver, and skin) are still in demand in many countries, although recent media reports claim demand may be on the decline. But a simple lesson in economics will tell anyone that this system of supply and demand is unbalanced, with too many boats catching too few fish.

Seafood, ahead of rubber and coffee, is the most heavily traded global commodity, with no signs of slowing down despite increasing concerns over global food security. These pirates, or illegal fishermen, are often from areas of political instability and limited opportunity; they turn to a trade which pays – illegal shark fishing.

Fresh shark fins drying on a sidewalk in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Nicholas Wang/Flickr
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing leads to the indiscriminate catching of millions of sharks each year, trying to fulfill global demand for shark products while driving down populations. Shark fishing is legal in many parts of the world, but there are unique places, such as shark sanctuaries and marine protected areas, where fishing for sharks is illegal. Short of a full sanctuary, countries may also implement fishing regulations such as finning bans, area or seasonal closures, gear restrictions, and species-specific prohibitions. Shark fishing in designated protected waters is clearly illegal, but there are also two other components of IUU fishing, the unregulated and unreported fishing, that contribute to shark mortality.  These will be addressed in a later blog.

Fortunately, recent technology is allowing us to see just who is fishing and where they’re fishing. Earlier this year, 65 dead shark carcasses were found floating in a mile-long illegal gill net off Texas, thought to be left by Mexican poachers. These kinds of nets, dubbed ‘walls of death,’ are illegal in the U.S. as they are highly effective in catching marine life, from sharks to sea turtles, and are often found drifting in the water far after fishers abandon them. In 2012, Texas authorities recovered a single, three mile gill net holding 3,000 juvenile sharks, an entire generation’s worth of animals. In Peru demand for shark fins drives the illegal dolphin slaughter of more than 15,000 dolphins every year for their skin to be used as shark bait, even though it is illegal to hunt or kill dolphins in Peru.

In the waters around Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, a shark-rich marine reserve and migratory corridor for endangered hammerheads, illegal fishers continually hunt sharks within the reserve boundaries. Illegal fishing, pirate fishing, black market fishing, regardless of term, is labeled as the reserve’s biggest threat. There is inadequate enforcement, little accountability or repercussions for breaking the law, but big payoff. Six of thirty-three vessels caught have been targets of criminal investigations, many others given only a slap on the wrist if enforcement agencies cannot catch them red-handed.

Officials from the Galapagos National park, National Police, and Ecuadorian Navy confiscate 365 sharks found illegally fished from inside the marine reserve.  Photo Credit: The Galapagos National Park
The Galápagos, once Darwin’s stomping grounds, named a ‘living museum and showcase of evolution,’ is no stranger to illegal fishing. Cheap and easy to use, long lines are set by fishermen to catch whatever animal will take the bait. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake from blue, dusky, Galápagos, and hammerhead sharks, and the combination traders paying top dollar for shark fins and little enforcement is an open invitation to illegally poach.

Protected waters, like those of the Galápagos and Cocos Island marine reserves act as a draw for illegal fishing activity, away from the watchful eye of authorities. Enforcement needs to be strong, penalties stiff, and governments, from law enforcement to the judiciary, steadfast in their laws and authority to stop illegal poaching of sharks and subsequent denial of port entry of those products. By turning away illegally-caught sharks at port, national and international policies can deter IUU fishermen and stop this kind of activity from paying off.

The Coast Guard Cutter Rush escorts a high seas illegal fishing vessel back to port. Photo Credit: US Coast Guard.
Illegal fishing laws, like the international treaty, Port States Measures Agreement (PSMA), while ostensibly a security measure, acts as conservation measures by requiring countries to exert tighter controls over what comes into their ports. Illegal fishers rely on loopholes in laws and relaxed inspections to get away with offloading their catch. International efforts, like PSMA, can increase the ability to inspect and turn away illegal cargo.

As seafood consumption and subsequent fishing efforts continue to rise, it is essential to link both shark conservation and illegal fishing efforts. Shark finning and shark fin soup have for years been the focus of conservation campaigns, but cracking down on illegal fishing will also help decrease shark mortality. For measures like PSMA to be effective for illegal fishing and shark conservation, we need to continually pressure countries to adopt treaties to close those loopholes.

It is no secret that illegal fishing takes effort to enforce. Though only five of the top 26 shark-fishing countries lack a national plan of action for illegal shark fishing, poachers are adept at skirting laws and evading law enforcement. Luckily, tools like PSMA already exist aimed at closing illegal shark fishing loopholes by ensuring only legally caught sharks and shark products enter countries’ ports. This international agreement, when adopted, would markedly increase the rate and ease of enforcement as well as stop illegal shark fishing from paying off. When there are no more places for fishermen to hide and the incentive stops, so can illegal shark fishing.

Lindsay Jennings is an Ocean Policy Fellow at the Marine Conservation Institute and part of University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program. You can follow her on Twitter.


Anonymous said...

What's the social impact for those countries where illegal fishing takes place? What is their opportunity cost? It's easy from the perspective of a developed country to point your finger and say "you have to stop and control your fisherman", but there is no solution offered to the most immediate social repercussions. Developing economies need to be assisted in order to change these primary methods of economy (extraction) to sustainable methods of production. These pirates that we are talking about are also fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who are trying to make ends meet, risking their lives in the high seas. Thousands if not millions of them are doing what their ancestors did or are doing this as their only mean of livelihood. Maybe pirate is not the right word to describe these fisherman. How about poor, uneducated, underprivileged man and woman of the seas.

Shark Defenders said...

This is what pirate fishing vessels look like today:

The Sea Bounty was caught poaching silky sharks and setting purse seine nets around whale sharks in the waters of the Marshall Islands Shark Sanctuary.

The ancestors of the Sea Bounty were not using purse seines to catch fish.

Anonymous said...

I agree! That is a massive ship, built in China with an American commander. It was not built by the Galapagos fisher man, although they remain part of the illegal fishing problem (specially shark finning and sea cucumber). It is close to impossible for undeveloped economies to keep up with local fisherman and at the same time follow these monster ships. The question remains, what alternatives are there to combat iuu fishing and generate sustainable development at the same time.

Unknown said...

I think you bring up a good point - development of countries who are known illegal shark fishers. IUU fishing and subsequent illegal shark fishing often stems from developing country's underlying social, economic, and political issues (and instability), meaning they have greater difficulties achieving enforcement and compliance.

Because primary motivation to illegally hunt sharks is for financial gain coupled with poor economic prospects, incentive will remain to engage in this sort of behavior until alternative jobs pay a comparable or higher wage. Yes, these fishers are fathers, brothers, and husbands who have a family to support, so there must be opportunities given to them for training and education for work in legal activities which can be just as lucrative.

Governments and non-governmental organizations should cooperate to develop alternative sources of employment to disincentivize illegal shark fishing without sacrificing the ability of those fishers to support themselves and/or their family.

Harold W. Weaver said...

There is illegal way ... Please do not adope this illegal hunting way

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Algarve Xcite Watersports said...

What an insightful blog that explained me about the imbalance in supply & chain that keeps everything moving. Really this blog helped me to understand how there is so much demand for Shark products in the market and Shark Fishing in Vilamoura is affected by less availability of boats.

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