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Is Coco’s a Paradise Lost? Costa Rica exports endangered Hammerhead Sharks

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Contributions by Courtney Mattison
of Mission Blue 

 

Three hundred forty two miles west of mainland Costa Rica lies an oceanic island so spectacular Jacques Cousteau called it the “most beautiful island in the world.” Cascading waterfalls cut through lush foliage, the symphony of a thousand seabirds fill the sky, and the surrounding deep waters host a diversity of wildlife found almost nowhere else on the planet. Isla del Coco’s extreme wild beauty appears Jurassic – and was in fact used in the movie of the same name. It seems as though you’ve gone back in time, to a time before humans.

After two days on the open ocean, the green towering mass of land before us was a most welcome sight. © Shari Sant Plummer
After two days on the open ocean, the green towering mass of land before us was a most welcome sight. © Shari Sant Plummer

Our ship, the Argo, was greeted by spinner dolphins who leapt and twirled at her bow as we entered the boundaries of Cocos Island Marine Park. After two days on the open ocean, the green towering mass of land before us was a most welcome sight, but the real anticipated pleasure was beneath the surface – the chance to dive with many species of sharks. Cocos is known for its shark populations; many species migrate throughout the Eastern Tropical Pacific from Galápagos to Colombia, Panama and finally to Costa Rica. Schooling hammerhead, Galápagos, and silky sharks are frequent visitors, as are tiger and whale sharks. There is also a large resident population of white tip reef sharks. Together, these top predators shape the food web and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

Spinner dolphins leapt and twirled at the ship's bow  © Kip Evans / Mission Blue
Spinner dolphins  at the ship’s bow © Kip Evans / Mission Blue

The expedition is led by Mission Blue founder Dr. Sylvia Earle and Nicolás Ibargüen, environmental correspondent for Fusion. Like me, many of the others onboard were experienced shark divers: shark conservationist Ocean Ramsey, I AM WATER Ocean Conservation Trust’s Hanli Prinsloo and Peter Marshall, Shark Angels founder Julie Andersen, Marine Biologist Jorge Cortés, Undersea Hunter co-founder Avi Klapfer, and Mission Blue’s Director of Photography and Expeditions, Kip Evans. Also with us are a couple of new shark divers who are excited to have some encounters, including actor and environmental activist Adrian Grenier, and editor-at-large for Bloomberg News Stephanie Ruhle.

Dr. Sylvia Earle diving in the Cocos Island Marine Park. © Kip Evans / Mission Blue
Dr. Sylvia Earle diving in the Cocos Island Marine Park. © Kip Evans / Mission Blue

Originally, our intent was to visit Cocos to highlight the success of this World Heritage Site, which has been a sanctuary for wildlife and a bucket list dive destination. Unfortunately, a week before our trip we heard from PRETOMA – one of Mission Blue’s nonprofit conservation partners in Costa Rica – that the Costa Rican government’s Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) had allowed the export of endangered hammerhead shark fins despite international commitments not to made by the previous president, Laura Chinchilla. The two shipments were sent to Hong Kong to feed the seemingly insatiable market for shark fin soup in Mainland China. Sources estimate that the number of sharks killed for these shipments was representative of close to 2,000 hammerheads.

The two species of shark included in these shipments were the scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) and the smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena). The Eastern Pacific population of S. lewini is considered endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Both S. lewini and zygaena are listed on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix II – a resolution to which Costa Rica signed on in 2013, making it a violation to import or export these species without first verifying that the animals are being fished sustainably with legitimate certificates of origin.

Randall Arauz, President and founder of PRETOMA, reported that the new government of Costa Rica, which is nearing the end of its first year in office, allowed these recent shipments of shark fins without the necessary verification, violating its international obligations and further threatening an already endangered species. However, under pressure from Costa Rican citizens and the international community, the Ministry announced on March 2nd that it would abide by CITES and ban shark fin exports pending a review that will likely occur in the next six months. In the meantime, catching, landing and slaughtering hammerhead sharks continues unabated in Costa Rica, and Mr. Arauz expects that shark fishers are stashing fins for export anyway, stating, “The [fishers] are going to dry these [new] fins and stash them.

© PRETOMA
Hammerhead Sharks © PRETOMA

What happens if the [CITES review] says they can’t do it anymore? They’re going to use the same argument that the sharks are already dead and there is no conservation benefit in not allowing the fins to be exported.” The Ministry will have the ability to stop this action, but many environmentalists are not optimistic that they will given that the declared customs value of one ton of hammerhead fins is worth more than $100,000. Arauz expects the new government to prioritize profit over conservation.

Given this alarming news, our expedition to Cocos Island became about shining a light on this abuse of the legal framework for shark protection, and protesting the trade of shark fins – ironically by the very country that the world has come to applaud for protecting them. We sought to create media that would help engender support for shark protection, and spark outrage that these shark fin exports could happen in Costa Rica, a country that prides itself on its environmental stewardship.

We did several dives each day, many times below 95 feet looking for hammerhead sharks. Though we saw many white tip reef sharks, we saw very few hammerhead sharks. Just a few years ago I saw hammerheads on every dive here, but now they were scarce. We did catch glimpses of them, and on the last dive at Bajo Alcyone we saw a school of about 25 swimming deep below us, but nothing like what we had hoped for.black and white hammerhead

We found fishing lines in the Marine Park, and saw hooks in the mouths of Galápagos and silky sharks that were feeding on bait balls. We can’t prove that the fins that were exported came from sharks in the Park, but we can say that there is poaching there; the park rangers told us so and we saw evidence of the longlines (even from the sub at 1000 feet). Randall Arauz later informed us that The Ministry of the Environment “has a list of all the illegal boats they see fishing in Cocos Island. And it turns out that one of those boats was seen at Cocos Island fishing and a week later that boat landed its products in Puntarenas and those hammerhead shark fins got exported.”

For our expedition team, it was still thrilling to dive in Cocos. Some were expert freedivers and could get really close to dolphins, schooling jacks, groupers, eels, and all kinds of reef fish. We also had spectacular Galápagos and silky shark encounters during a bait ball event, and I even spotted a whale shark on one deep dive!

white tip sharks cocos
White tip reef sharks on a night dive at Manuelita

 

Galapagos and Silky sharks compete with Dolphin and Tuna for fish off Cocos Island
Galapagos and Silky sharks compete with Dolphin and Tuna for fish off Cocos Island

But if the government of Costa Rica doesn’t step up to protect hammerhead sharks, I’m afraid they won’t be here at all the next time I visit Cocos. Will these magnificent animals only be seen as floating fragments in Chinese soup? The only way to ensure their survival in the wild is to impose absolute bans on hammerhead shark fishing, landing, commerce and the export of shark fins from Costa Rica to prevent poachers from being able to trade. Enforcement reforms in protected areas are also badly needed; many poachers even when caught are not prosecuted. And the Costa Rican fisheries management agency, INCOPESCA, needs scientists advising on the catch limits of allowed species, not just the fishermen that run it today.

As our voyage came to an end and we returned to the mainland, the beauty and fragility of Cocos’ diversity of life played on in my mind. I resolved to do what I can to help protect this special place, and you can help too!

Join Mission Blue in urging the Costa Rican government to enforce hammerhead fishing and fin export bans. Sign the petition and donate to support Mission Blue and PRETOMA in this fight. Together we can save sharks, save the ocean, and thereby save ourselves.

The short documentary, Shark Land, produced by Fusion TV will air on World Oceans Day, June 8, 2015 at 10:30 PM ET. You can view the trailer on You Tube here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d96HKQprySw

Shark Land will also be available on Fusion.net along with more contentand petions to stop trade in shark fins.

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Comments

  1. Ben Waters
    Bristol
    April 28, 2015, 4:43 am

    Hunting these endangered species is a disgrace. It’s all China’s fault creating a demand for such a thing as shark fins. It’s about time the rest of the world put a stop to it! They seem to have to eat everything even if it means wiping it out forever. We should go to war on this!

  2. Sean Davis
    Costa Rica
    April 27, 2015, 10:44 pm

    Grow up Troutboy. Money and a thriving black market makes people do these things. If given a choice between feeding your family and doing cruel and horrid things to animals you would do the same, we all would. The key is educating a growing Chinese market and making them understand that shark fin soup does nothing for them physiologically, and is tasteless. It is really the same as the American war on drugs. As long as the market and demand are there, the slaughter in Mexico will continue. Stop the consumption and the crime sorts itself out.

  3. troutboy
    East Branch, NY
    April 23, 2015, 7:44 am

    What drives a human to commit such a heinous deed as to cutting body parts off a living creature, and then return it to it’s home unable to do anything but drown in the beautiful waters it swam freely in hours prior? I wish I knew the answer to this question as it haunts me every time I ask myself how in God’s name can someone bring themselves to do this over and over again witnessing the same gruesome results? At what point do you drop the knife and realize there has to be a better way to live your life.
    Your article helped me feel like I was there, and leaves me feeling some sense of hope that people like you and those that joined you are making a difference. Thank you so much Shari, and please feel the love that I’m sending you for all you do to protect those that have no voice to cry out for help.