2,000 Sharks Killed in Colombia’s Protected Waters

Costa Rican-flagged fishing trawlers are observed killing the sharks for fins.
A hammerhead shark swims in the ‘protected’ waters of Colombia's Malpelo Sanctury. Many sharks like these were recently slaughtered in the Sanctuary by Costa Rican fishermen, eager to make a buck off the sharks’ fins. (Photo: Franco Banfi/Getty Images)
Oct 25, 2011· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Last week in the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, off Colombia’s Pacific coastline, The Guardian reports that more than 2,000 hammerhead, Galapagos, and whale sharks were slaughtered for their fins...inside the marine-protected area.

Like the Galapagos, the Malpelo Sanctuary—both World Heritage sites—sits far offshore. It is 300 miles and 36 hours by boat from the mainland and covers 3,300 square miles. Colombia’s Navy only sporadically patrols it.

While Russian divers were at Malpelo studying sharks last week, they reported seeing ten large fishing trawlers, which were flying the flag of Costa Rica, illegally enter the protected zone. A video made by the divers shows dead, finless sharks covering the ocean floor. The Russians reported the trawlers caught and killed 200 sharks per boat.

The Malpelo sanctuary is considered one of the most shark-rich areas of ocean on the planet, where divers report sightings of 200 hammerhead sharks and as many as 1,000 silky sharks in a single dive. Colombia has national rules banning harvesting of shark fins plus a comprehensive plan for management and conservation of sharks, rays, and chimeras.

Yet despite all of these rules, Marine Protected Areas (MPAS) are proving very difficult to police. For example, the ocean surrounding the Galapagos Islands is perhaps the most famous protected water in the world. The Galapagos are a marine reserve, World Heritage site, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Still, its waters are nearly impossible to adequately patrol and are constantly raided by poachers and shark finners.

The problem for most [Marine Protected Areas], citing the Galapagos and now Malpelo as prime examples, is enforcement, particularly the funding necessary for good policing.

On paper, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are considered among the most forward-looking ways to protect the ocean, or at least parts of it. Sure, fishermen get rankled when they’re told they can no longer fish areas they and their families have worked for several generations, but even they tend to catch on to the benefits of MPAs as stocks replenish when properly left alone. Meanwhile, exploiters of oil and gas are often outright against MPAs because they put potential drilling off-limits.

Around the world there are currently about 6,800 MPAs, from the Philippines to Hawaii, the Great Barrier Reef to the Dry Tortugas. They protect just a little over one percent of the entire ocean, a number ocean conservationists would like to see grow to ten percent. The problem for most MPAs, citing the Galapagos and now Malpelo as prime examples, is enforcement, particularly the funding necessary for good policing.

After the report of the recent finnings in Malpelo, the Colombian Navy gave chase. It caught up with a fishing boat, but it was Ecuadorian-flagged, though also carrying an illegal catch of shark and other fish.

When the Colombian foreign ministry complained to the government of Costa Rica about the incident, the latter said it “energetically condemned” the finning. Three of the trespassing boats were identified by name: the Marco Antonio, the Jefferson and the Andy, which you would think would make them easy to track down.

Stay tuned.