Cocos Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site off the coast of Costa Rica, has been called an “underwater Serengeti” because of the many species found in its waters, including hammerhead sharks. But there is a darker side to this idyll: Costa Rica is the shark-finning capital of Central America. The story, reported by Maria Finn for the Food & Environment Reporting Network, is published in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.
In 2011, Costa Rica outlawed shark-finning, the practice of slicing off the animals’ fins and throwing the fish back in the water to die. But, as Finn explains, fishing sharks there is legal, so the trade still flourishes. In 2011 alone, she reports, an estimated 400,000 sharks were killed in Costa Rican waters; 30 tons of fins were exported to Asia to be made into shark fin soup.
The protected waters around Cocos Island are especially favored by shark poachers, in part because of the large population of hammerheads. These sharks—listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union—have fins dense in cartilage, which unfortunately makes them prized for soup.
Only a half-dozen rangers patrol the 12 miles of waters around the island, where poachers spread “longline”—miles of fishing line hung with baited hooks about every 5 feet. The rangers are outgunned and outmanned by the poachers, Finn reports, who are equipped with radar to warn of approaching boats.
“In 2012 alone, [head ranger Geiner] Golfin told us,” writes Finn, “rangers confiscated 180 miles of longline and 5,000 hooks. The rangers want to take the fishermen to court, but as Golfin explained, ‘Longliners serve on Costa Rica’s fisheries management board. They aren’t going to punish themselves.’”
Finn, a California surfer and diver and author of the TED book, “The Whole Fish,” traveled to Cocos Island on a dive trip. She describes watching hammerhead sharks visit “cleaning stations” where small fish nibble parasites from the sharks’ skin: “[The shark] turned her head to look at me from an eye that juts out at 90 degrees. White, thunderbolt-shaped scars from mating etched the skin near her gills. She was glorious.”
At one point on the trip, Finn and her fellow divers witnessed five species of sharks in a single view: hammerheads, a silky shark, Galapagos sharks, a blacktip shark, and a whale shark. Writes Finn: “It was nothing short of a miracle.”
According to the World Conservation Union, a third of all open-ocean shark species are threatened with extinction. An estimated 63 million to 273 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries.