Shark “Massacres” Happen Every Day…We Just Don’t Hear About It

Earlier this week, MSNBC reported a shark “massacre” in which hundreds of sharks were found dead aboard a fishing vessel captured while fishing illegally in the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Scott Henderson, director of CI’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program and shark expert, responds.

Photo: © Fred Bavendam/ Minden Pictures

In the 30 years since I first arrived on the Galápagos Islands as a wide-eyed biology student, I have seen plenty to keep my eyes popping. I’ve witnessed some of nature’s most impressive wildlife spectacles — vast schools of hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini), grand aggregations of Galápagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) and even ‘mini-schools’ of the ocean’s biggest fish, the colossal whale shark (Rhincodon typus).

I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of watching shark populations decline, mostly due to overfishing and illegal fishing in protected areas. However, thanks to improved policies to reduce shark fishing, better enforcement capacity through a state-of-the-art Vessel Monitoring System, and growing political commitment in Ecuador to control the hemorrhage of shark products — especially fins destined for the lucrative Chinese market — shark fishing in the Galápagos Marine Reserve has been greatly reduced in the past few years.

Which is why news of last week’s “shark massacre” has come as such an unsettling surprise.

To my mind, the newsworthy item in this story is not that a vessel ‘massacred’ some 380 sharks, as this sort of thing happens every day — around the clock, in all oceans, by vessels of nearly every seagoing nation in the world, including the United States. I’ve personally witnessed the fins of dozens of newborn hammerhead baking in the dockside sun in Panama before sale to international merchants, whose stores in Hong Kong sell fins for a pittance of what sharks are worth alive to the thriving dive tourism industry. I’ve observed large numbers of sharks being offloaded in Costa Rican ports and I’ve even pulled up longlines to free still-living sharks illegally captured around some of Galápagos’ most famous dive sites. All of these captures have contributed to the combined international catch of an estimated 73 million sharks per year.

Unfortunately, despite the unquestionably critical role that sharks play in ocean health, and their remarkably low reproductive capacity to withstand heavy fishing pressure — which is only growing as the Chinese market (and appetite for sharkfin soup) grows — shark fishing is still legal in most countries.

What is newsworthy about this story is that targeted shark fishing is illegal in Ecuador, and all kinds of shark capture in Galápagos are forbidden. Yet despite their limited resources, the Galápagos National Park Service — with the staunch support of the Ecuadorian Navy — managed to chase down a relatively large commercial fishing vessel with a medium-sized speedboat and force the vessel back to port for a thorough, well-documented and transparently reported inspection and judicial process.

The pressures on the park service to turn a blind eye to such illegal activities and let vessels involved in them slip away undetected, or unapprehended, are immense. Yet a transformation has occurred in Galápagos; protecting sharks, not sitting idly by and watching them systematically eliminated, is now business as usual for both the park and the navy. Virtually no one recognizes the park service for this dedication, which in the past has led to gunshots and wounded park guards.

After nearly 30 years working in the Galápagos Marine Reserve I can say that although some battles have been lost, and continuing shark declines are deeply worrying, the fact that Galápagos remains a sanctuary where large shark concentrations still persist is a tribute to the Galápagos National Park Service, the Ecuadorian Navy and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment, who have demonstrated the leadership and willingness that few other nations have shown to work hand in hand with organizations such as ours and take concrete steps to curb overfishing.

If sharks, and the ocean health that depends on them thriving, are to have a fighting chance, other nations and marine protected areas are going to have to develop the skills and commitment to protect them as effectively as the Galápagos National Park Service.

Helping make this happen is my commitment as part of Conservation International’s shark conservation team and as director of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, which is one of the last bastions of healthy shark populations.

Scott Henderson is the director of CI’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program.