The eastern Pacific Ocean has historically been home to significant populations of sharks, with more than 18 different species identified in Costa Rica’s waters alone. However, many species of sharks are now critically endangered. Over the last 50 years, global shark populations have declined by 90% as a result of overfishing, which has been exacerbated during the last decades by the growing demand for shark fins, specifically to be used as the key ingredient in shark fin soup. In China and in Chinese restaurants around the world, shark fin soup is a delicacy that was once considered a luxury consumed only on special occasions. As China’s economy booms and the growing middle class increases demand for the soup, shark finning has decimated the once-thriving stocks. As many as 100 million sharks are slaughtered annually to feed global demand. This unprecedented change in shark populations significantly threatens the sensitive balance required for healthy marine ecosystems, thus endangering the fisheries and economic livelihoods of fishing communities around the world.
The practice of shark finning has been widely criticized as wasteful by conservationists and brutal by animal rights activists. International fishing fleets targeting sharks specifically for their fins tow miles of hook-covered lines, catching thousands of sharks and other marine life in what is known as long-line fishing. The sharks are then hoisted aboard, where workers slice the fins from live animals before tossing the fin-less bodies back into the ocean to die. Because shark fins command $70 per kilo while shark meat yields only about $.50 per kilo, it has not made economic sense for ships to fill valuable hold space with a commodity worth so little. A single expedition can yield millions of dollars in profits when only fins are kept and shipped to market.
The potential for huge short-term profits has led many governments throughout the world to relax existing fisheries laws or simply turn a blind eye to shark finning. In 2004, Costa Rica was the world’s third largest exporter of shark products, including 8,000 tons of fins. Vessels from Taiwan, China, Indonesia and elsewhere travel to shark-rich waters, pay duties to local governments to land on their docks, and then bring their catches to market in Hong Kong, where the majority of the trade in shark fins takes place.
Randall Arauz, a conservationist who founded the Association for the Restoration of Sea Turtles (PRETOMA) in 1997, emerged as one of the world’s leading voices working to ban shark finning. As a turtle biologist and conservationist, he worked with the shrimp industry in Costa Rica to reduce the sea turtle casualties associated with trawling. After some success in introducing new trawling technology to the industry, he learned that long-line fishing boats were also to blame for sea turtle deaths. When Arauz’s friend got a job as a cook on a long-line shark fishing boat, Arauz sent along a video camera so that he could learn more about exactly how the fishing technique worked. The footage he received completely shocked him. He had not previously been aware of shark finning, and seeing the brutal practice in full color sparked his subsequent commitment to stop shark finning in Costa Rica.
In 2003, Arauz exposed a Taiwanese ship illegally landing 30 tons of shark fins, amounting to the deaths of 30,000 sharks, late at night at a private dock in Puntarenas, using a secretly filmed videotape. He released the footage to the media, and the resulting shock and outrage from the Costa Rican public and international community galvanized support for Arauz’s ensuing campaign to enforce the country’s existing laws against shark finning. He mobilized the support of 80,000 citizens and 35 deputies of the Legislative Assembly to sign a petition calling on Costa Rica’s president to halt the practice and close private docks to the landing of international ships, as dictated by existing customs legislation. The petition and media attention garnered by the public outcry led to a decision by the customs department in November 2004 to halt all landings of fishery products by international vessels on privately-owned docks until they complied with the law. Unfortunately, the closure lasted only a few weeks.
Following this interim move, a national fisheries law went into effect in February 2005 that specifically prohibited shark finning and mandates all sharks to be landed with their fins attached. The new law also called for fines and jail terms for those caught landing shark fins at Costa Rican ports.
However, the industry soon identified loopholes in the legislation that enabled them to continue shark finning. The law still allowed for the landing of whole sharks with their fins “attached,” so fleets began tying large fins to tiny sharks to get around the finning ban. In August 2006, Arauz succeeded in closing this loophole.
Arauz also filed suit against the Fisheries Institute and the Customs and Public Transportation Ministries at the Constitutional Court, Costa Rica’s highest court, for failing to abide by current customs law. In 2006, the court ruled in PRETOMA’s favor.
Throughout his campaign in Costa Rica, Arauz worked closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Congress to urge the UN to ban shark finning and to stop all long-line fishing in the eastern Pacific’s international waters. He viewed a complete ban as a clear deterrent for shark finning vessels and as a means for reducing the negative impact on the other marine life unintentionally caught by the lines. In 2007, the UN General Assembly approved language calling on nations to mandate that all shark fins be landed attached to the body of the shark, marking a major shift in policy and a huge victory for Arauz and other activists working to protect sharks globally.
Since the UN recommendation was issued, Arauz represented Costa Rica at several UN meetings and has called for a complete ban on shark finning. In 2007, he participated in a UN Convention of Migratory Species meeting as an official Costa Rican delegate and was instrumental in the election of Costa Rica as a member of a five-country commission tasked with drafting language for international cooperation for the protection of sharks.
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