The Mexican fisherman Tomás Valencia, aged 70, remembers that around 30 years ago he used to catch a lot of sharks.
“We got bull shark, blacknose sharks, blue sharks, spinner sharks. We caught up to seven in a journey, on average we fished four or five,” he recalled. Valencia began to fish at the age of seven and has become a legend in Tuxpan, a town 500 kilometers southeast of Mexico City, in the state of Veracruz, a traditional fishing and oil exploitation site. In his youth he used to tie sharks by the tail, while two other men held the nets that kept the animals.
But those times are memories, because fishers catch less and less. Now, they set sail at 7am in the morning and come back the next day. “Fishing has become very hard. There is little left, because we’re finishing them off. Sometimes there are journeys that leave empty hands,” said Valencia, a member of the “Puerto de Tampamachoco” cooperative, that incorporates 75 partners and advocates for the rights of small-scale fishers.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the sector hard, because the fishermen couldn’t sail due to the risk of contagion and the market was down, and it hasn’t recovered yet.
This story plays out in other Mexican marine areas, aggravated by the authorities' permissiveness of fishing of shark species under threat. More often than not, the fins end up in China and Hong Kong.
Read Part 1: Mexico's Suspicious Shark Fin Exports Under CITES
This assertion is based on the analysis of fishing license databases, notices of arrivals of shark boats and shark fin exports under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Flouting of the rules and a lack of uniformity in reporting has exacerbated the capture of sharks, whose existence dates back millions of years and is key for the health of ecosystems. As predators they control the balance of other species situated below them in the trophic chain; indirectly, they maintain the health of coral reefs and other ocean ecosystems.
Shark fisheries’ records reveal many discrepancies. Dozens of notices of arrival only report eviscerated or fresh whole shark, without naming the boat or the species. Conapesca, the Fishing and Aquaculture National Commission, has registered 8,278 boats, of which 1,680 have capacity to bring in more than 1 ton of catch to port, and 6,598 less than 1 ton. Data from Conapesca seen by EJN states that between 2011 and last May there have been 109,475 notices of arrivals of shark fishing boats to ports, of which 81,332 were small boats of 1-ton capacity and 28,143 were larger boats, bearing a heavier load.
Of those, there have been 11,128 notices of arrival of boats with weight greater than 3 tons. The largest landing of shark came from an unidentified boat on October 30th 2019, with 1,103 tons of shark on board, in Tonalá, 938 km south to Mexico City, in the state of Chiapas. Something similar — where boats were recorded bringing in volumes of shark that would have been physically impossible for them to transport — happened in other ports too, such as La Paz in the northern state of Baja California Sur, and San Blas, in northwest Nayarit.
A similar phenomenon happened to the export requests of shark fins under CITES, in existence since 1975. CITES, which covers more than 5,600 animal species and around 38,000 plants, protects them against overexploitation through international trade, according to their risk of extinction. It has three appendices that group species according to how threatened they are by international trade.
In 2017, 8 non-detriment finding certificates (NDFs), used to evaluate export requests of species protected by CITES, cite cases of unloading reports that exceed the registered capacity of the boat. In 2018 there were another 3 NDFs; in 2019, 4; and in 2020, a total of 6.
Experts interviewed by EJN put the responsibility on the environmental and fishing authorities.
Alejandro Olivera, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD)’s representative in Mexico, deemed physically “impossible” the unloading of high volumes of sharks by minor boats, because they can’t transport that weight, and imputes the lack of surveillance to law enforcement.
This data shows a capture pattern, explained to EJN by a fisherman in La Paz who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons. Major boats catch sharks in high seas and then share the volumes with minor ships that head for ports to unload the animals.
“The lack of control reflects on many fisheries and there are many forms to game the system of reporting. The fishing policy leads to a lack of transparency, to the absence of traceability of the boats and of seafood. Satellite data of minor boats aren’t shared (by the authorities). It’s a reflection of the disorder, which has too little data, and it impedes the fishery sustainable management”, added Olivera.
The consequence: overexploitation.
Juan Carlos Cantú, Defenders of Wildlife’s representative in Mexico, blamed Conapesca, the governmental agency that regulates the fishing sector, by issuing licences and controlling fishing activities.
“One of the things that has to be understood is that fishing authorities are responsible for the extraction (of species) and the surveillance (of fishing) as well. But only the catch matters for the fishing sector,” said Cantú, a biologist by training.
Since 2011, Conapesca has given out 1,519 shark fishing permits, the only fishery that has specific licenses. In 2020, there were 170, valid until 2023, 2024 and 2025. By late May, the authorities renewed 21, in force until 2025. Most of the permits come from Baja California Sur, Veracruz, the northern state of Tamaulipas, Baja California, north of Mexico, and Sinaloa in the northwest. By law, the fishing authorities don’t award new licenses, only renewals — an effort to keep the number of permits fixed and curb overfishing.
Most of the complaints the authorities receive are due to illegal fishing (only 20 cases). One complaint of illicit possession of sharks was recorded and there were 21 seizures between 2019 and 2020. Illicit or illegal fishing refers to activities such as fishing without a permit, fishing during a closed season, the capture of protected species, the use of forbidden fishing gear or the communication of false information on catch volume.
Those practices have given rise to another problem too: illegal shark finning, where fishers cut off the fins to export to China and Hong Kong, and throw sharks' bodies into the sea. The fishing sector — industry and cooperatives alike — denies it with the punctuality of a bureaucrat.
The NDF 192/2019, seen by EJN, cites 6 notices of arrival that reported unloading of fresh fins. In addition, the NDF 121/20 mentions 10 notices of arrival of fins.
To authorize the exports, the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio), financially dependent on the Secretary of the Environment (Semarnat), applies a conversion factor to tally the number of unloaded animals and the volume of fresh fins.
Hesiquio Benítez, Conabio’s International Cooperation and Implementation director general, explained that the authorizations are based on Conapesca’s data and scientific papers.
“It’s the only thing we can directly pay attention to. We use the information on a case by case basis. The annual estimations come from scientific studies and we see trends. We take the information with due care. Sometimes, the data does not match,” he said.
Conapesca, which imposes fishing closed seasons from May to August on both coasts, didn’t answer a request for comment.
There are 111 shark species on Mexican waters, according to the 2018 Action Programme for Conservations of Sharks and Rays.
But quite a few varieties are protected by law, which forbids the capture of whale shark (Rhincodon typus), white shark (Carcharhodon carcharhias) and basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus).
IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species catalogues as “vulnerable” the oceanic whitetip, smooth hammerhead, silky sharks, and bigeye thresher, common thresher and pelagic thresher, while considers the scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead and shortfin mako sharks “in danger”.
CITES approved between 2013 and 2019 the inclusion in Appendix II of scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), smooth hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zygaena), great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), bigeye thresher (Alopias superciliosus), common thresher (Alopias vulpinus), pelagic thresher (Alopias pelagicus) and shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus). That classification, which covers 10 shark species, requires that its trade needs a special authorization by the exporter nation. However, Mexico still hasn’t updated its regulation of species under threat.
The Secretary of the Environment, in charge of drawing up the regulatory protection, vetoed the addition of scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, great hammerhead and shortfin mako sharks, in spite of the pressure of environmental groups that delivered scientific evidence of the urgency of that protection. Weeks ago, the secretary opened up a new public consultation on that annexation.
Mauricio Hoyos, the director general of non-government organization Pelagios Kakunjá, emphasized the low number of varieties under safeguard. “Mostly, it’s due to lack of information. That’s why it is so important to generate information to give the government those tools to protect the sharks. The hammerhead (shark) is at serious risk of extinction, because it’s captured too much for finning. It’s very prized. For that, it needs immediate protection,” said the biologist, who authored a study that supported the inclusion of those sharks.
Mexico is the fourth biggest producer of sharks. Its catch totaled 44,657 tons and consumption reached 45,615 tons — 0.36 kg per capita — in 2018, according to Conapesca and the industry. As production doesn’t satisfy the domestic consumption, imports cover the difference. Between 2014-2018, the capture average equaled 38,233 tons.
The rays and shark fisheries are the eighth largest in the country, contributing 2.5% of captures and 2% of unloaded total weight in the last 15 years.
To draw up the NDFs, Conabio assesses the actual risk and concludes which species face medium and high threats on both coasts, especially for their interaction with the artisanal fishing fleet — the main captor of sharks in shallow waters.
But the absence of information on shark populations hinders their management.
Óscar Sosa-Nishizaki, researcher at the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education’s Department of Biological Oceanography, highlighted the lack of “robust data” in fisheries.
“We have a general view, we try to rebuild the historic captures and make the best estimation of every species. The whole system of how capture data is obtained must be improved. We’re rebuilding the specific arrangement. There has to be assessment of the populations and the collection of biological information on birth, growth, migration and so on. It’s a long way until we can say if the populations are well or not,” he said.
The scientist is part of an inter-institutional working group that focuses on the historic reconstruction of shark fishing, to determine the conditions of the fishery, and that has to be ready later this year.
The 2017 National Fishery Letter, the basis for the management of fisheries, only refers to the scalloped hammerhead and silky sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, which describes them “exploited to the maximum sustainability”.
Besides, in 2018 the Action Programme for the Conservation of Sharks and Rays, which is currently being updated, acknowledges the lack of dissemination, surveillance, monitoring and law enforcement as barriers to the conservation of the elasmobranch.
Moreover, it acknowledges the impacts of unsustainable fishing, disturbances and habitat pollution; and growth of human activities in important ecosystems for the species.
Defenders’ Cantú slammed Conapesca for blocking protection to the varieties under threat. “Simply put, it’s not interested in conservation. Its only interest is in the fishermen’ votes. They’re not doing anything. The economic aspect has too much weight.” he said.
The Criminal Code typifies some felonies related to threatened species, including those in CITES. The code establishes one to nine years in prison for trafficking, capturing, owning, transporting, importing or exporting species protected by law or under international treaties, as CITES. It adds three additional years if the purpose of the activity is trading.
“It’s very difficult to enforce laws against a whole activity when authorities from different institutions intervene that have a totally different view on how things should be done,” said Cantú.
Since 2020, Semarnat faces two complaints by CBD and Pelagios Kakunjá for its reluctance to add the scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead and great hammerhead sharks to the protection regulation.
CBD’s Olivera argued that the motive may be economic, because “the scientific arguments are proved, [but] those species have a huge commercial importance, it’s a heavy factor.”
But Sosa-Nichizaki has doubts about the viability of that inclusion. “It’s worth checking the sea cucumber case. It goes from one typification to another one, and it doesn’t imply a better situation. It’s a very interesting challenge, but the results so far for the sea cucumber aren’t very clear. For conservation, inclusion is an important step, but it’s not achieved overnight,” he said.
In 2018, Semarnat changed the sea cucumber status from “special protection” to “threatened”, which implies restrictions for its fishing and trade.
But since that moment, the pressure on the species hasn’t stopped. In 2019 and 2020, there were 11 cases of illegal fishing and one of illicit trade. Press reports have shown that its capture and commercialization intents have continued.
Conabio’s Benítez has doubts too about the future protection of the species and complaints about that the fishing sector doesn’t listen to them. “There is resistance from the sector, but it’s a global problem. There are lots of interests, cooperatives, (fishing) communities,” he stated.
While the scientific and political debate goes on, fishermen like Valencia only want better livelihoods. “We’re being educated so that we stop predating [fishing more sustainably]. But we want alternatives; we don’t want to work at sea anymore. I’ve spent my whole life at sea. We want something else; to defend ourselves when there is nothing out there in the water. But the government takes decisions without taking into account the ones affected,” he lamented.
This story was produced with the support of the Wilson Center and Earth Journalism Network. Originally published by IPS Noticias in Spanish on 23 August 2021, it has been translated and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Fishermen unload seafood on August 3, 2021 in the port of Mazatlan, in the state of Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico, one of the main fishing and arrival sites for shark boats in the country / Credit: Christian Lizarraga.