[By Guillermo Ortuño Crespo]
“Better an honest enemy than a false friend,” the saying goes. Unfortunately, sharks in the Eastern Pacific Ocean may have one of these in Ecuador. Despite decades of legislation to protect sharks, the Latin American country has also allowed its semi-industrial fishermen to catch them in large numbers.
Humans have been fishing for species on the high seas for at least 20,000 years. Yet in the past 50 years alone, shark abundance has declined by 71%, largely due to a sharp increase in commercial fishing and bycatch. That’s a snap, considering the evolutionary branch of sharks and other cartilaginous fish dates back around 400 million years.
The international community has taken steps to address the problem, creating bodies to help conserve and sustainably manage biodiversity affected by fishing. Known as regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), they place particular emphasis on species such as sharks that share the waters of coastal states and the high seas beyond.
The very first area to have an RFMO was the Eastern Pacific, home to some of the most biologically productive marine ecosystems in the world. The creation of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in 1949 preceded the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the subsequent United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement by three and four decades respectively. . But despite its lead, the IATTC, like the dozen other RFMOs that will follow, has largely failed to protect sharks and their cartilaginous cousins.
This is partly because some countries have obstructed the collection of adequate data or used their veto power to frustrate RFMOs’ attempts to establish sustainable mortality limits for shark species (i.e. say by ensuring that birth rates are higher than death rates). Some countries, on the other hand, have made notable efforts to protect these species, including Palau, which has banned shark fishing. There have also been progressive actions within the industry. The South Korean multinational Dongwon, for example, is committed to non-retention policies, meaning it releases all sharks caught. While initiatives such as Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), which includes the world’s 10 largest seafood companies, adopted a strategy in late 2021 to reduce risk to endangered cartilaginous fish.
At first glance, the sharks of the Eastern Pacific Ocean have an ally in Ecuador. The coastal nation has for decades projected a strong commitment to shark conservation through legislative action. Ecuador banned the active targeting of sharks by its national fisheries in the 1990s, and in 1993 passed a law banning finning without selling the meat. In 2006, it became one of the first signatories of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s International Shark Action Plan.
Just a few months ago, Ecuador took another bold step to protect sharks by announcing the expansion of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Ecuador, which in recent years had denounced the threat that international vessels (such as the Chinese-flagged Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999) posed to the health of its shark populations, appeared to be showing leadership in protecting its heritage. natural marine.
However, the sharks have been affected by other less publicized actions. In 2007, then-President Rafael Correa issued a decree that effectively overturned the ban on the sale and export of shark fins. Alex Hearn, a marine fisheries ecologist at the University of San Francisco in Quito, told China Dialogue that the decree does not allow targeted shark fishing but does allow bycatch, and as no definition of bycatch has been given, “he practically opened the floodgates”.
Indeed, the uncontrolled capture of sharks in the eastern Pacific Ocean by offshore fishing fleets poses a serious threat, as there are no quotas, bycatch or mortality limits. But, at the same time that it denounces it, Ecuador has kept its own semi-industrial shark fishing activities at bay. In theory, Ecuador does not allow targeted shark fishing, but official catch statistics reported to the FAO reveal that it is the largest shark fishing nation in the Southeast Pacific, accounting for 40% of the catch between 1990 and 2016. Maximiliano Bello, an ocean policy expert in the region, says this can be done in plain sight because “the target species are hidden under the term ‘bycatch'”. He told China Dialogue that up to 90% of sharks caught qualify as bycatch.
These statistics can largely be attributed to Ecuadorian boats fishing for large pelagics – species that inhabit the upper layers of the open ocean. A 2015 study found that this semi-industrial fishery caught and retained around 260,000 sharks each year between 2008 and 2012, 50 times more than the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. Accompanying these figures is evidence suggesting that Ecuador’s shark fin exports increased by 635% between 2013 and 2021, earning the top three exporting companies profits ranging from $3.8 to $6.5 million. This raises questions as to why the international community should continue to engage in debt swaps with the coastal nation to expand its national marine reserves if the same sharks they are meant to protect are then targeted a few miles further to the sea. large.
How to do better?
When, where and how you fish influence the species you catch. If Ecuador wants to demonstrate its commitment to shark conservation, it could start at the national level, improving fisheries management to try to reduce bycatch and enforcing a no-retention policy, whereby any incidentally caught shark must be released under the best possible conditions. Ecuador could also lead and galvanize other actors to establish sustainable management plans for sharks in the IATTC region, which is one of their responsibilities under the UN Stocks Agreement. of fish from 1995.
The conservation of highly mobile shark species in the eastern Pacific Ocean, or any other region, does not depend on the actions of any single coastal, island or distant-water fishing nation.
According to Professor Hearn, “international pressure could also work”, particularly pressure from markets such as the EU. While the Ecuadorian fleet targets mahi mahi for half the year, the other half engages in “APT fishing”. This Spanish acronym stands for tuna, billfish and shark. Hearn points out the irony: “They don’t recognize shark fishing, but they call it shark fishing!”
Hearn says banning the landing of these animals would not be enough, as dozens of shark species would still end up being bycatch. It is therefore important to implement bycatch reduction methods, such as avoiding certain areas of the eastern Pacific Ocean. “But we don’t have good spatial data on catches in Ecuador: the system is not transparent and that’s essential to improve fisheries management in the region,” Hearn said.
As we head into what may well be the last few years to reverse the decline of many shark species, transparency on catch and mortality rates is more important than ever. In this regard, honest enemies can be better shark allies than false friends.
Guillermo Ortuño Crespo is a postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University.
This article appears courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean and can be found in its original form here.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.