CITES Warns Ecuador: Crack Down on Illegal Shark Fishing, Now | Hakai Magazine

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Ecuador is, once again, in the hot seat.

Late in 2023, officials from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, more commonly known as CITES, gave Ecuador an ultimatum: if the government doesn’t clamp down on illegal shark fishing and the sale of illicit shark fins, CITES will lock the country out of the legal international trade of protected sharks and rays. Ecuador was given 120 days to act on the warning, and the March 28 deadline is rapidly approaching.

Shark fishing is prohibited in Ecuador, but it is legal for fishermen to sell shark parts if the animal is caught as unintentional by-catch. John Vera, president of a fishermen’s association in Manta, Ecuador, that translates to Fifth of March, says that for the country’s artisanal fishermen, these inadvertently caught sharks—as well as other fishes like tuna and mahimahi—make up an important part of the daily diet and income. Most fishermen are already struggling on low incomes, says Vera, while drug smuggling and gang violence are also making coastal communities increasingly dangerous. The attention from CITES has thousands of artisanal fishermen concerned for their futures as they face increasing pressure to leave sharks alone along with potential restrictions on their fishing areas.

But Ecuador didn’t draw CITES’s ire solely because of small-scale artisanal fishing practices. Instead, Ecuador found itself in the crosshairs after CITES staff briefly visited the country in May 2023. They discovered huge gaps in the monitoring and control of the shark trade coming from all forms of fishing on Ecuador’s waters, from small trawlers to industrial fleets.

The vast majority of Ecuador’s shark fins are exported to its neighbor Peru. There, they get mixed up with Peru’s own stock and re-exported to markets abroad, mainly Asia.

In a recent report, CITES staff documented the irregularities they found in Ecuador’s records. In 2021, for example, Ecuador reported exporting 210,558 tonnes of shark fins to Peru, while Peru reported receiving 243,777 tonnes. That’s more than 30,000 tonnes of shark fins missing from Ecuador’s records. The bigger question, though, is how so many shark products are flowing out of the country, considering it only legally allows sharks to be caught as by-catch. The discrepancy implies that thousands of sharks and rays are being illegally caught and sold.

This isn’t the first time international organizations have tried to crack down on Ecuador’s fishing industry. In 2019, Peru’s customs officials seized almost 50 tonnes of shark fins that Ecuadorian exporters were trying to smuggle into the country. That prompted an investigation into the Ecuadorian administrative body that oversees wildlife exports. Later that year, the European Union hit Ecuador’s fishing industry with a yellow card, saying it needed more reassurance that Ecuador’s fish products weren’t embroiled in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, thus putting the country’s trade agreement at risk.

The recent CITES ultimatum shows that Ecuador still hasn’t been able to instill global confidence in its fishing practices.

Oswaldo Rosero, who helped write Ecuador’s national shark action plan in 2021, says Ecuador’s main problem is its lack of data collection. Ecuador has no laws regulating by-catch, meaning fishermen can return to shore with a catch comprised of 60 or 70 percent sharks and claim that it’s all incidental fishing, says Rosero. The only exceptions are five shark species that are altogether prohibited: whale shark, basking shark, great white shark, sawfish, and silky shark. But these species still end up on Ecuadorian docks, experts say.

There are also typically no officials stationed on fishing boats or on shore to verify the fishermen’s hauls, track repeat offenders, or even log basic details such as where all these sharks are being caught. That is the kind of data that should be tracked publicly, Rosero says. When combined with studies of the populations of sharks and other fishes in Ecuadorian waters, better monitoring would help protect sharks while also pointing local fishermen toward different species to catch, Rosero says.

“The plans are there,” he says. “Perhaps there has not been the political will to implement them, and we had to reach this point of receiving this threat [from CITES] in order to put it into effect.”

But there are other reasons Ecuador hasn’t been able to control shark fishing. One marine biologist in Peru, who has been following the illegal shark fin trade since 2017 and asked to remain anonymous because they’ve previously received threatening messages, says some Ecuadorian shark fin traders have links to organized crime. The constant flow of undeclared shipments of shark fins or illegal shark species also points to the larger problem: corruption among officials tasked with monitoring and regulating the trade, the marine biologist says.

They add that if CITES ends up implementing a ban on shark fishing in Ecuador, it won’t stop shark fishing. It will just make everything illegal, “and then everything will go through illegal channels.”

It’s unclear whether Ecuador’s new president, Daniel Noboa, who took office in November, will comply with CITES’s demands for better policies. Neither Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Ecological Transition nor its Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investment, and Fisheries responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

But Rosero says Ecuador should take CITES’s threat seriously. Otherwise, the country could face grave economic consequences—especially if its trade relationships with the United States and Europe are impacted. For instance, if the European Union downgrades its assessment of Ecuador’s fisheries from a yellow card to a red card, that could restrict the trade of all fish products coming from the country, including catches from Ecuador’s multibillion-dollar shrimp and tuna industries. And for Ecuador’s already struggling fishermen, that would be a serious problem.

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