Sharks and fisheries: Conservation and advocacy for endangered marine species, Costa Rica

It is illegal in Costa Rica to land sharks unless their fins are attached. Despite this, the law is rarely enforced and the rewards for those who breach it are enormous. Boats from countries as far away as Taiwan can make millions of dollars from a single fishing expedition, their catches of fin destined for the Chinese mainland where shark fin soup is an expensive and highly prized delicacy. In China, the host who treats his guests to shark fin soup is demonstrating both his affluence and generosity – it’s an instant status booster.

Shark finning is not just cruel, it is also wasteful. Fins are sliced from the live fish which are then tossed back into the ocean to die. The rest of a shark’s meat is worth so little – just 50 cents a kilo compared to $70 a kilo for the fins – that it would take up valuable space in the boat’s hold if retained.

On May 31 2003, Randall Arauz’s PRETOMA organisation secretly captured footage of a Taiwanese fishing landing 30 tons of hacked-off shark fins at a privately-owned dock in the Costa Rican port of Puntarenas, under cover of darkness. Some 30,000 sharks were killed to provide this ship, the Gruida U Ruey, with its gruesome haul.

The landing of the catch horrified both Costa Ricans and the international community and helped galvanise PRETOMA’s campaign to have the existing laws against shark finning enforced more effectively. Despite this, the practice continues, fuelled by a massive demand for shark fins from the fast-growing

Chinese middle class. International fishing fleets, deliberately targeting sharks for their fins, trail lines a hundred miles long – the distance from London to Birmingham – across the waters of the Eastern Pacific as they deplete the ocean’s dwindling shark stocks.

According to Randall, winner of the 2004 Whitley Gold Award and the Whitley Award sponsored by the William Brake Charitable Trust, long lining and the practice of shark finning is the main factor behind the decimation of Costa Rica – and the world’s – shark populations. But it is also a flagship issue to raise awareness of the threat to the marine environment in general. Other marine species, including the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, are also being driven to extinction by their incidental capture in fishing gear aimed at sharks.

Randall’s campaign started in May 2003. ‘Before then, no one knew about shark finning, now everyone does’, Randall has said. “But the Government denied that laws were being broken. We proved that they were – and now we have both the President and the Minister of the Environment on our side. We have filed a lawsuit against the Government for breaking its own laws.’

Since winning the Whitley Gold Award in 2004, Randall and PRETOMA have made great advances in their campaign. PRETOMA successfully galvanised the support of 70,000 Costa Ricans and 35 deputies of the Legislative Assembly, who together signed a petition to President Pacheco calling for a halt to shark finning and the closure of private docks to the landing of international flag vessels, in compliance with Customs Legislation. As a result of these efforts, the Costa Rican Customs Department decided, as of 22nd November 2004, that all landings of fishery products by international flag vessels at the private docks of Puntarenas would be halted until they complied with the law. This change in the tide was followed by the passing of a new national fisheries law on February 10, 2005.

Despite these great successes, there is still much work to be done. The new fisheries law introduced stricter laws prohibiting shark finning and tougher fines and jail terms for those involved in landings, but government commitment to enforce the law remains an issue. Soon after the closure of private docks, the Director of Customs was removed from her position, ending the dock closure.

Long-term, Randall would like to see the UN declare a ban on long-lining in the international waters of the Eastern Pacific. He has said: ‘Costa Rica can spearhead the fight against shark finning, but not while we are one of the culprits.’

To see Randall describe how he first became aware of the illegal shark finning activities taking place in Costa Rican waters and to see the video footage that provided the evidence, please visit: Animals: Shark finning whistleblower on gruesome video.

Since winning his first Award in 2004, WFN has supported Randall’s work again in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Watch Randall Arauz tagging a shark as part of PRETOMA’s research work.

Full winners list