In Ecuador, celebrities don't come more celebrated than Alex Aguinaga, the country's most widely recognized soccer star and one of its most respected citizens.
So Ecuadorians took notice last October when Aguinaga—along with the coach and four other top players of the country's World Cup-bound national team—launched a petition drive aimed at pressing the government to curb the wholesale killing of sharks.
Sports figures here rarely lead environmental causes, but Aguinaga has become an enthusiastic shark-protection advocate since he watched a video showing how the animals are slaughtered by the thousands in Ecuador to feed the lucrative shark-fin trade.
"Just as soccer brought us together, let's come together today for sharks," Aguinaga said in a television spot aired as part of the campaign. "Play fair for the sharks."
Ecuadorian shark fishing, most of which is believed to occur near the Galápagos Islands, should in theory be in sharp decline. An Ecuadorian executive decree issued in October 2004 prohibits all sale and export of shark fins, which are in strong demand thanks largely to the popularity in Asia of shark-fin soup.
But proof that a ban on paper does not ensure a prohibition in practice came soon after, when Ecuador's Central Bank reported that during October and November of 2004—when the ban was supposed to have been in force—Ecuador exported 12,500 pounds (5,670 kg) of shark fins. During the entirety of 2004, shark-fin exports totaled 156,246 pounds (70,872 kg), according to the Central Bank.
Given the generally scant environmental monitoring and enforcement here, reliable numbers on shark killings are hard to come by. The San Francisco-based environmental group WildAid estimates that in the period 1997-2003, Ecuador exported 850 tons of shark fins—an amount, the group says, that would have required 1.7 million sharks to be killed.
Deborah Chiriboga, a leading environmentalist in Ecuador with long experience in shark-fishing issues, estimates that in all, 250,000 to 300,000 sharks a year are killed in the country's waters.
Despite the dearth of precise figures on shark-fin exports currently, some government officials assert that the ban has significantly slowed the trade. Others are not so sure.
"Our colleagues in Hong Kong say shark-fin imports [there] have not diminished and that Ecuador continues to play an important part in the exports [to Hong Kong]," says Mario Piu, chief of the Galápagos Marine Reserve. "This demonstrates that shark-fin exports probably are being registered under other names."
Under Ecuadorian law, sharks in Galápagos waters are protected. They must be freed if caught unintentionally, and accidental killings of sharks must be reported.
Mainland Ecuadorian ports only are allowed to accept sharks that have been killed accidentally in fishing operations conducted outside the protected marine zone surrounding the Galápagos. But even in these cases, the shark must be fully intact, and it is illegal to cut off and sell its fins.
According to WildAid, a key organizer of the shark-protection campaign here, some 80% of the fins exported from Ecuador are shorn from sharks killed near the Galápagos.
Of the 33 shark species in those waters, the hardest-hit are the hammerhead, blue, thresher, black tip, mako and Galápagos varieties. Godfrey Merlen, a field supervisor on the Galápagos for WildAid, says that every year, some 5,000 shark fins are obtained illegally in the vicinity of the islands.
Currently, the government is feeling strong political pressure—much of it from small-scale fishermen from the mainland—to relax the ban on fin exports.
In March, the government of then-President Lucio Gutiérrez tried to modify last year's decree so it would allow the export of fins from sharks that fishermen catch unintentionally. But Gutiérrez's removal from office the following month put an end to the effort.
In September, the Galápagos Guides Association, a grouping of nature guides, publicized photographs showing crew members of the tour vessel Expedition holding sharks that appeared to have been recently caught.
The pictures prompted the nine-member Galápagos Alliance, an association of national and international green groups that fund conservation projects on the islands, to call for an investigation. Currently, the Galápagos prosecutor's office and Gálapagos National Park are looking into the matter.
In a report issued last year, WildAid warns that the shark-fin trade is helping to precipitate "the disappearance" of sharks from the eastern tropical Pacific. The group points to the intensive illegal fishing of sharks in Ecuador as a prime example.
"…[I]n the past few years, the shark fin trade in Ecuador has been completely out of control, with large volumes of fins originating in the Galápagos Islands," the report said. "Despite a number of governmental attempts at controlling the trade, widespread corruption has allowed illegal activity to flourish."
Harry Reyes, the Galápagos National Park official in charge of monitoring fishing activity, says illegal shark fishing typically takes place around the islands from November to May. According to Reyes and other officials, shark fins are smuggled in a number of ways.
Sometimes industrial-fishing vessels from mainland Ecuador and other countries appear just outside the 53,000-square-mile (138,000-sq-km) Galápagos Marine Reserve and receive sharks from small-scale artisanal fishermen based on the Galápagos.
In other cases, fins are packed into suitcases and smuggled from the Galápagos by plane. Shark fins have been hidden in fuel-transport vessels and also aboard cargo ships, in which they've been squirreled away in coffee sacks or gasoline containers.
Ecuadorian and international green groups supporting the petition campaign hope public pressure will prompt the government to develop an effective shark-protection program.
"What's happening to sharks is what happened years ago with sea cucumbers," says Chiriboga, the Ecuadorian environmentalist. "Once supplies are exhausted on the continent, the fishermen go to the Galápagos and put the species' survival at risk."