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March 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Shark Hunt Continues at Cocos Island

poachers hack off the fins, rangers lack resources to stop them

from the March, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

“In 100-foot visibility, 50 hammerheads, two dozen whitetips, large silkies, huge marble rays, a dozen green turtles, fivefoot wahoos, a quarter-mile-long school of jacks, bait balls that block out the sun, streams of rainbow runners, then 300 hammerheads turn into view . . . .This is Cocos Island, 350 miles off the Costa Rican coast.”

I wrote that for Scuba Diving magazine in 1994. In October 2008, most of the hammerheads are gone; there are no silky sharks, no dusky sharks, no sailfish. In 30 hours underwater, I saw three tuna, some white-tips, marble rays, two dolphin, three mantas, a few dozen eagle rays and a small school of jacks. Most anything that will eat bait on a hook or swim into a net is long gone. A more common sight is rays, sharks and jacks trailing hooks and fishing line. Even in these 300 square miles, we managed to descend upon eight dead sharks - - two baby hammers, two silvertips and four whitetips - - dangling from abandoned long lines.

At Cocos (and in other protected areas like Colombia’s Malpelo Island and the Galapagos), poaching is rampant and the profits attract high-rolling traffickers. Sushi bars are flush with fish from these waters. Asian communities worldwide have rediscovered shark fin soup, a status symbol and an alleged aphrodisiac. As a result, this last refuge for many noble pelagic species is losing its battle for survival, while the Costa Rican government turns a blind eye toward foreign fishermen preying within the 12-mile limits at Cocos. Rangers even allow poachers to anchor in the protected bays of Cocos Island. While they cannot refuse safe harbor for vessels 300 miles offshore, the rangers get nothing in return. After a peaceful night sleeping in the lee, the fishermen are refreshed and ready to string hooks across the many miles of Cocos’ ledge.

In May 2003, Costa Rican Randall Arauz’s marine conservation organization, PRETOMA, secretly captured footage of a Taiwanese vessel landing 30 tons of shark fin at a privately owned Costa Rican dock. Some 30,000 sharks were killed to provide this haul. In his 2007 film Sharkwater, Rob Stewart provided disturbing footage of shark-finning in Indonesia, Guatemala and Papua New Guinea. Stewart discovered that the Taiwanese Mafia - -known better as “The Shark Fin Mafia” - - was the mover and shaker behind most of the shark finning done in Costa Rica. He filmed hundreds of hammerheads dying on thousands of miles of long lines. Officials traced shark fins from all over Asia back to Costa Rica, but Taiwan continues to import its shark fins from Costa Rican waters.

For a short time in 2008, two patrol boats went out every night. Neither had radar, though the fishing boats are often loaded with radar, GPS and powerful engines. When a patrol boat appears on their radar, they pull in the fishing line and retreat to the park boundaries. Unfortunately, the “navy” today has been reduced to a kayak and a decommissioned aluminum boat with a rusting 40-hp outboard. Rangers have been threatened by fishing crews with machetes and Molotov cocktails. In June, a Coast Guard boat actually opened fire to scare away four fishing vessels that surrounded the patrol boat. The rangers had stumbled onto illegal longlines attached to 91 floating radio buoys, had hooked yellowfin tuna, five hammerhead sharks, a pink marlin and several white tip sharks. The same day, 10 illegal fishing boats were spotted within the 12-mile protected zone.

Not surprisingly, tales of capture and prosecution are rare. To date, there has been one serious prosecution for illegal fishing within park boundaries; the ship’s captain and owners were fined $668,000. The ship’s lawyers are appealing. Captains, rangers and fishermen are quick to report that everyone is on “the take” - - park rangers, Coast Guard leaders, government officials, even state environmental officers. Bribes are usually just enough to allow a fisherman a few hours to set long lines off Manuelita, a stoic rock 200 yards off the main island of Cocos that used to be famous for the schools of hammerheads that filled its cleaning stations.

Today, despite the dogged efforts of the Imaging Foundation (partnering with American Express), Cocos’ status as a UNESCO site, and worldwide press, Costa Rica still does almost nothing to solve the poaching problem. A proposed Shark Finning Prohibition Law states that the whole shark must be killed and used instead of today’s practice of cutting off the fins and throwing the animal back in the water, where it is left to suffer an agonizing death. If this law passes, anyone caught handling shark fins without the rest of the carcass will be subject to up to three years in prison. While this parallels the law in the United States, forcing the fishermen to kill and butcher the entire animal will only slow the slaughter. And there are real concerns that the government will not enforce fisheries regulations due to strong Taiwanese interests in Costa Rica.

As many as 40 divers a week visit Cocos Island, perhaps spending as much as $20 million annually for diving support, air travel, landing and docking fees, salaries, fuel, food, lodging, shopping, ground transportation, entertainment and gambling, but Cocos remains unprotected. The government has printed flyers and posters prompting us to vote for Cocos Island, recently nominated by the New Seven Wonders Foundation as one of the new natural wonders of the world, but that’s a public-relations ploy. An effort to protect Isla del Coco and raise $100,000 in funding for increased patrolling of the island is backed by The Fundación Amigos de la Isla del Coco. Airport money-boxes collect donations from tourists. The sponsors have delivered equipment to the park rangers aimed at enhancing their performance and reducing the risks, including special diving suits and equipment. However, it’s unclear whether the rangers are even trained to use them.

While rangers I spoke with seem to care that the waters off Cocos Island are being ravaged, they are hobbled by ineffective and ill-conceived laws, broken equipment, lack of funding and resources (and the fact that their cousins are on these fishing boats). They are severely and critically outmatched, outwitted and unmotivated. So the slaughter continues, day in and day out, as it does around the world.

- - David Leonard

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