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, 2010, 2013, and 2017.
2017 Continuation Funding
Halting extinction of Eastern Pacific sharks
£70,000 over 2 years
A quarter of all shark and ray species are threatened with extinction and Costa Rica is a major shark finning nation. Randall’s project aims to protect blue, thresher and hammerhead sharks from unsustainable fishing practices while tackling domestic consumption of shark meat through a public and political campaign. It is an exciting project that seeks to establish transnational ‘shark swim-ways’ to protect and connect key habitat for sharks across the Galapagos-Costa Rica-Colombia migration corridor and deploy aerial drones to monitor marine reserves. Expansion of protected areas and the introduction of no take zones, seasonal fishing closures, and restrictions in international trade will be sought to safeguard sharks and cutting-edge research will guide future management. The new ‘swim-ways’ offer an opportunity to develop further collaboration with other Whitley Award winners and NGOs in Latin America, with sharks migrating thousands of miles each year.
2019 ANNIVERSARY FUNDING
Conserving highly migratory marine species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific
£65,000 over two years
Randall Arauz will build on his past marine conservation work to protect the Galapagos-Costa Rica-Colombia corridor by creating larger marine protected areas surrounding Cocos Island, significantly increasing the no take zone from 2,000-10,000km2. His 25th Anniversary Funding project also looks to develop a new coastal Marine Protected Area (MPA) of 24,000 ha in Coyote, Costa Rica, with a focus on promoting small-scale sustainable fisheries.
Further research will be conducted on the movements of highly migratory endangered marine species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, including the identification of coastal rookeries and their interactions with small scale fisheries. Randall will use this research to better advocate for marine conservation policy and the creation of MPAs taking both biodiversity conservation and the immediate needs of fishers into account. Additionally, Randall and his team will seek to implement a total ban on catch, retention and commercialisation of hammerheads, silky sharks and thresher sharks under CITES. No stranger to the political realm, Randall will monitor the development of fisheries policy in Costa Rica and whistle blow on policy that lacks science and favours overfishing.
Randall consults with an array of organisations and researchers to attain his conservation aims, and this project includes collaboration with other Whitley Award winners in Latin America including Sandra Bessudo and Diego Amorocho. Randall’s largescale and multifaceted plan marks an important next step in his work to conserve marine mega-fauna across the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
Top image credit: davidenelmar.com, Pretoma
2023 Continuation Funding
Safeguarding sharks and rays through increased marine protections
£100,000 over 2 years
Following relentless work to secure protections for endangered sharks and ray species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, in March 2023, all of Randall Arauz’s project sites were declared Important Shark and Ray Areas (ISRA’s) by the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group. Successful lobbying at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) CoP 19, just four months prior, also saw an Appendix II listing for requiem sharks; but there is still much work to be done…
Randall is now focussing efforts on the protection of the “Triangle” of unprotected waters around Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama, which is wedged between two existent Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Using Continuation Funding, he will work to identify shark rookeries in the area to prove its necessity.
Having identified the need to protect a biological corridor between Cocos Island and the Galapagos used by leatherback turtles and hammerhead sharks, Randall will use Continuation Funding to increase no-take coverage and domestic and international legal restrictions on the catch and commercialization of threatened marine species in the region. Domestically, he is working to extend the current ban on the catch and commercialization of threatened sharks and rays from 3 species of hammerhead sharks to 9 additional species of threatened sharks and 1 ray, while internationally, Randall’s main goal is to list hammerhead sharks under Appendix I of CITES during CoP in late 2025.