Many foreign vessels are driven to fish the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) by the demand for shark fin soup in East Asian markets and the high numbers of sharks that gather in the warmer northern waters of the archipelago. Such was the case for the Nino Dios. In1998, the Nino Dios was captured with 8,000 shark fins onboard–equivalent to ~1600 sharks. Sharks, as top predators, are crucial to marine ecosystems and are also the backbone of dive tourism in the islands. The capture and finning of sharks is strictly prohibited within the GMR but it happens and it happens a lot.
As one ex-shark finner observed, “You see the fishermen downtown sitting in the hammocks all day playing cards. Why is that? It’s not hard to see they’re going out at night”
In 2001, the Galapagos National Park made a concerted effort to crack down on shark poachers. One element of this effort was an agreement signed between the Galapagos National Park and Sea Shepherd International. Under the contract, the National Park was given full license to use the Sirenian, a Sea Shepherd vessel, to patrol the marine reserve.
That year, the National Park captured 20 boats illegally fishing (mostly with longlines) in the GMR. Crews aboard the Sirenian captured seven of those 20. The Cannella II was caught near Wolf and Darwin Islands; onboard were1044 shark fins and 78 carcasses while the captured Dilsun had 1500 shark fins and 300 shark bodies onboard.
Since 2001, enforcement has weakened for a number of reasons: mechanical problems with the patrol boats, political changes, lack of funding, etc. With the help of WildAid, another non-profit deeply concerned about diminishing shark populations, a number of new initiatives have been made such as the use of ‘shark fin sniffing’ dogs at the airport (where fins are smuggled out of the islands in non-descript luggage).
The dogs did catch a couple fin-filled bags, which meant the fishermen had to find a way of exporting their fins in other ways. The logistics plane that brings passengers and supplied for the Navy and Airforce bases in Galapagos is one way they smuggle their fins. Another is simply traveling outside the Galapagos Marine Reserve’s 40-mile limit and delivering the fins to boats from Costa Rica, Colombia, and Peru that wait on the periphery (Ecuadorian boats from the mainland are also shark finning and deliver their fins the same way–the export of shark fins from Ecuador was made illegal in 2005). Just a couple of weeks ago a local Galapagos fisherman was caught with a boat full of shark bodies and a cargo hull full of fins.
In the meantime, the many Galapagos dive operations that make their living off of passengers who come to watch the scalloped hammerheads, white tips, and Galapagos sharks underwater have reported seeing fewer and fewer sharks through the years–schools of 300 or more hammerheads are now rare, though the passengers are still happy at the 30 sharks (indeed, this was my first introduction to the idea of ‘shifting baselines’). Manta ray populations are also declining since they get tangled in shark nets. And though all the right legislation is in place (shark fishing is illegal, longlining is illegal, shark fin exports are illegal), the enforcement and adherence to these rules is laughable.