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Notes from the field: Commercialization of Shark Fins in Galapagos

On July 20th, Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, repealed Decree 2130 which prohibited the commercialization of shark fins and installed Decree 486.

The response to the decree was unprecedented. Groups of young activists took to the streets denouncing the government’s decision. Many questioned the “timing” of the decree as the decision falls strategically on the eve of congressional elections and clearly targets a largely undecided block of voters; an estimated 200,000 fishermen and their families. Fishermen and fin traders almost immediately began to openly commercialize fins, but confusion ensued as the new decree still did not enter into vigor for another 2 weeks until it was printed in the public registry.

During the following two weeks, there were several fin seizures as the authorities were unclear which decree prevailed, nor did they have the new documents required for the legal commerce of fins established under the new decree. One controversial seizure involved the interception of two tons of dry fins leaving the country via the southern border town of Huaquillas by the Environmental Police and the Director of Sea Shepherd. Outraged by the negative press and the involvement of an international conservation organization, the President had the Director arrested and nearly deported him for his involvement, but quickly reversed the decision when he learned he is married to an Ecuadorian.

The tension continued to mount as the media became increasingly involved and employed the public backlash to mudsling the president.

With the help of key partners and Norlop Thompson, WildAid quickly responded by airing the “Play It Clean” commercials on national networks and providing campaign materials to interested protestors. The latest slogan of the campaign “If we do not have guts, they will not have fins” was widely employed by the media, tourism operators, other civil society groups to demand the protection of sharks. IMAX theaters in Guayaquil offered free viewings of the film “Sharks” to the general public for one week. In cooperation with Ecoventura and other tourism operators, we organized an international mass mailing of letters from concerned tourists, foundations, agencies and most notably: Jean-Michelle Cousteau to pressure the government for the proper management of the resource.

So what now? Well it appears unlikely that the Ecuadorian government will repeal 486, but it does seem ready to include provisions that promise stronger controls, taxes on exports to finance controls and enforcing sanctions on infractors. Sharks caught as by catch can be commercialized, but the challenge remains in ensuring proper management of the resource over the long term and not permitting overharvesting in the name of “bycatch”. While whole landings are mandatory under the new decree, the other key challenge lies in halting finning in the Galapagos Marine Reserve as well as aboard industrial boats in Ecuadorian waters.

After one month, the Subsecretary of Fisheries is finally now employing monitoring and transportation guides for all shark fins. WildAid in cooperation with Conservation International is working with Authorities by hiring inspectors and establishing a database for the systematizing of by-catch data at key ports on the continent. In addition, workshops will be carried out with all stakeholders to disseminate key regulation information and new commercialization protocols. It remains to be seen whether the political will and resources currently allocated to shark management will outlive the media hype which forced it the forefront from the getgo. Regardless, we will be waiting and ready…