At 3:30 a.m., we can still find dozens of local fishermen struggling to sell their merchandise near the Ver-o-Peso Market, located in the city of Belém in the north of Brazil. "Only 10 reais per kilo. Anyone?" one of them keeps asking.
Today’s bargain is dogfish or shark. Unlike other fish on display, these have had their heads and fins cut off. "This one here is known as baby shark," says the man. "It’s great for making moqueca," a traditional Brazilian fish stew.
Through genetic sequencing, we find that the fish they are selling is actually smalltail shark (Carcharhinus porosus), a species considered critically endangered by the Fauna Risk Assessment, which is published by ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation).
Brazil's consumption of this type of fish is high. Based purely on import data, around 17,000 tons were consumed in 2021, and 13,000 in 2022. (There is no official data on fishing in the country.) However, Brazilians are unaware that this kind of fishing involves illegal practices and threatens the species. From a commercial perspective, by-products or other body parts attract the greatest interest.
Shark fins are valuable in the global market, especially in Asia, with prices reaching 1,000 US dollars per kilo (about 4,790 Brazilian reais). There, they are used to prepare soups, and also for traditional medicine.
"Sharks are caught mainly through a practice known as 'bycatch,' which is when you aim for one type of fish, but end up catching other species," explains Alberto Akama, ichthyologist (fish expert) and researcher at the Emílio Goeldi Museum in Pará.
It is through this loophole that Brazil allows shark fishing. However, when a species is under threat of extinction, fishing becomes prohibited. Thus, if a vessel that is authorized, for example, to catch tuna ends up catching a species of shark that is listed as vulnerable, it must release the animal.
In practice, however, threatened sharks are not returned to the ocean. This is corroborated by the work of inspection agencies, and also by studies that identify the species that are sold in the market.
During a visit to the Ver-o-Peso Market in May, Folha collected 11 samples of fish sold as dogfish or similar. Of these, nine were critically endangered species, according to a laboratory analysis that we commissioned.
In order to avoid punishment and maximize profits, vessels often behead these fish before bringing them to shore — which makes identification more difficult. Their fins are also removed, which suggests that this valuable part may have already been sent to foreign markets.
This type of "cleaning" is also irregular. A joint decree issued by the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry for Fisheries in 2012 requires that all fish be brought to shore with all their parts intact. The decree also prohibits finning, which consists of removing the fins of rays and sharks and discarding the rest of the body, which has lower commercial value.
The increase in the number of seizures, following the adoption of stricter enforcement and inspection measures, reveals that demand for these animals is on the rise.
In June 2023, a joint operation involving the Federal Police and the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) seized more than 28 tons of shark fins in the state of Santa Catarina.
In July, the State Public Security and Social Defense Secretariat (SEGUP) in the state of Pará found a cache of irregularly caught fish worth around 400,000 reais, in addition to more than 50 kilograms of shark fins valued at 239,000 reais. In the past four years, SEGUP bought 84 new vessels to monitor environmental crimes. According to authorities, all seized goods were destined for Asia.
During their visit to Ver-o-Peso, the largest street market in the Amazon, the Folha team also found hammerhead sharks (of the genus Sphyrna) and bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), two species respectively considered as critically endangered and vulnerable.
Given the limited information we have on species found off the coast of Brazil and their conservation status (there is only data for 31 of the 62 species assessed by ICMBio), many threatened shark and ray species may be prey to illegal fishing.
"Currently, around 60% of all reef ray and shark species are threatened with extinction. The whole situation is very threatening," says biologist Luiza Baruch, who recently completed her master's degree on ethnobiology (which combines data from local communities with biological data). She focused her research on a type of ray, large-tooth sawfish, and small-tooth sawfish (Pristis pristis and Pristis pectinata) found off the coast of Pará.
Sharks and rays are collectively known as elasmobranchs. Most species are viviparous (that is, their offspring are born directly from the uterus) and take a long time to reach sexual maturity.
Since they are top predators, their presence is essential to maintain ecosystem balance. However, populations are in decline around the world. "After the most recent catches, they don't have a chance to reproduce," explains Baruch.
IBAMA states that it has been working to prevent the illegal trade of sharks and rays in Brazil. ICMBio says that it carries out inspections in marine conservation units (UCs), but adds that "the majority of environmental crimes occur in the ocean, outside UC limits and jurisdiction."
The Belém municipal government is responsible for the Ver-o-Peso Market. However, city officials claim that it is the state government’s responsibility to monitor what is sold there. The Pará SEGUP claims that it has made significant investment in fighting and monitoring environmental crimes.
Responding to our questions, the Ministry for Fisheries and Aquaculture said that they are updating current regulations to curb illegal, unreported, and undeclared fishing.
Cases such as those involving sawfish, which is classified as critically endangered, reveal the risks of illegal trade. A survey carried out by biologist Patrícia Charvet (from the Federal University of Ceará) and other colleagues identified a decline of nearly 87% in its population.
Baruch, who also studies sawfish, says that this species is currently believed to be restricted to the north coast of Brazil. It can only be found near the states of Amapá and Maranhão, whereas, in the past, it was found along the entire coast. "Despite all current restrictions [on fishing], it is becoming increasingly rare to find these fish," she points out.
The saw (or sword) of this type of fish is highly coveted, selling for around 5,000 reais. Single teeth fetch 50 to 100 reais each. The saw is sold as a charm in the Asian market, while isolated teeth are turned into spurs for cockfights.
There are videos on the internet showing fishermen attacking live sawfish with a hatchet to remove their saw.
"Here in the north of the country, we have the greatest fish biodiversity in the world. Unfortunately, there is still a huge gap in enforcement, and a lack of information on species and researchers. The entire Legal Amazon has fewer people with PhDs than the University of São Paulo (USP)," explains Akama.
Environmental education also plays a key role in addressing this issue. In the region's extractive reserves, fishermen are taught how to recognize and help protect threatened species. In general, however, they still avoid talking about their findings.
"We may be able to create a protected area, but if the community as a whole do not understand the importance of that region for a particular animal, what guidance they should follow, and what that implies, it won't make any difference in terms of conservation," concludes Charvet.
Shark fishing in Brazil by the numbers
- 17,000 tons of shark meat are consumed in Brazil every year.
- Over 28 tons of shark fins were seized in June 2023 alone.
- 50% of all shark and ray species in the north are somehow endangered or threatened.
- 9 of the 11 shark samples collected by Folha at the Ver-o-Peso market (Belém) belonged to critically endangered species.
- 2,000 vessels operate in the north of the country, according to the Ministry for Fisheries and Aquaculture.
- Asia is the main destination for animals illegally fished in the Amazon, or their body parts.
Sources: ICMBio, IBAMA and Ministry for Fisheries and Aquaculture.
Read the original Portuguese-language story here.
This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Folha de Sao Paulo on August 27, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The Ver-o-Peso Market in Belém / Credit: Lalo de Almeida for Folhapress.