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January 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 38, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Shark Massacre at Malpelo

from the January, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Sandra Bessudo, Colombia's top government advisor on environmental issues, didn't believe the initial report when she first received it in October. She called it "unbelievable." But after getting the initial e-mail from a team of scientific divers and seeing their video of shark bodies lining the ocean floor, she had to investigate for herself. Taking a boat to Malpelo Island, a wildlife sanctuary located 300 miles off of Colombia's Pacific coast and a famous site for liveaboard divers, Bessudo unfortunately had to confirm it was true -- invaders from another country had slaughtered as many as 2,000 hammerhead, Galápagos and silky sharks just for their fins.

Russian scientists, who chartered the MV Yemaya to study the sharks at Malpelo, saw 10 fishing trawlers flying the Costa Rican flag entering the zone illegally on October 3 and staying for two to three days. Then on their dives, the scientists started finding a large number of sharks without their fins lying at the bottom, none of them alive.

German Soler, executive director of the nonprofit Malpelo Foundation, says that these trawlers drop lines that stretch as far as two miles and carry up to 250 hooks. "In March 2010, we caught the boat Capi One, and one of its line had over 100 sharks attached to it. So there was a lot of damage done in Malpelo in just a couple of days."

The Malpelo sanctuary covers 5,325 square miles of water for threatened marine species, and sharks in particular. Colombia's navy sporadically patrols the waters and maintains a small outpost on the island, which is 36 hours from the nearest port. (At the time of the reported shark finnings, the two navy boats in charge of surveillance were being repaired at port.) But once the report of the finnings made news worldwide, the navy dispatched a ship to the area and quickly reported the seizure of an Ecuadorian fishing boat, caught with an illegal catch of 660 pounds, including sharks. Since then, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has ordered a constant navy presence in Malpelo. He also took up the issue with the Costa Rican government, which said it "energetically condemns" the reported finning, and vowed to co-operate to help stop the practice by ships registered under its flag.

The good news, says Soler, is that there still are sharks at Malpelo. "I just got back from a scientific expedition there in mid-December, and was glad to find up to 250 hammerheads at a time, and schools of Galapagos sharks. That made us very happy, because we were afraid we weren't going to find anything." Otmar Hanser, owner of the MV Yemaya, agrees. He visited around the same time, and said, "We had schools of hammerheads totaling up to 300. The sharks are still there in the same numbers as before the incident."

The bad news is that there's no direct way divers can help ensure that Malpelo sharks there remain safe, other than to keep putting pressure on the countries that benefit from killing them for their fins. "Massive numbers or sharks are being fished every day in the Golden Triangle of the Galapagos, Malpelo and Cocos islands, with little or no attention drawn to it," says Shawn Heinrichs, director of the nonprofit group Shark Savers ( ). "Fisheries and governments adjoining this triangle are profiting from this mass slaughter. Corruption and greed are at the heart of the issue. Only when this corruption is addressed might we see change. Until then, periodically we will be 'shocked' by this sad news, which is really the tip of the iceberg, a passing reflection of what happens every day."

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