New crime?: What’s behind the seizures of nearly 25 tons of trafficked shark meat

New crime?: What’s behind the seizures of nearly 25 tons of trafficked shark meat

by Michelle Carrere on 30 November 2020
From Ecuador

Main image: Shark trunk seizure. Photo: SUNAT
All other images: Shark trunk confiscation. Photo: FEMA

  • These are mainly threatened species that do not have the documentation required to be exported.
  • Between authorized and unauthorized crossings, there are at least 22 border crossings where the bodies of sharks could be illegally entering

For years the attention of the shark trade has been focused on the illegal commercialization of fins that supplies the millionaire Asian market. However, this 2020 the business seems to have diversified. The Special Prosecutor for Environmental Matters (FEMA) of Tumbes opened between September and November five investigations into trafficking in shark trunks from Ecuador.

According to the prosecutor in charge of the investigations, Ina Suárez, in total there are 24,800 kilos of meat, mainly from endangered species such as the pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus), breasted thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus), hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) and blacktip shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus).

All these species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), so their export is prohibited unless the merchandise is accompanied by special permits that prove the legality of the resources. However, in all the cases that are being investigated, the sharks did not come with such documentation.

Prosecutor Suárez assures that the traffic is of great proportions, that it moves important sums of money and that there are indications to think that it is a crime linked to organized crime with the participation of public officials.

A new crime?

Alicia Kuroiwa, director of habitats and threatened species at Oceana Peru, says that last year, during the Symposium on Ray Sharks and Allied Species that was held in Lambayeque, students went to the Santa Rosa wholesale market, in Chiclayo, as part of the activities that were developed to see shark bodies for sale.

There, “the refrigerated trucks are parked inside the market”, Kuroiwa explains, and “the fish are directly taken out to sell them”. What students and officials from the Ministries of the Environment and Production (Produce) saw then was that there were shark species protected by CITES that were being unloaded and sold.

Officials from the Ministry of the Environment asked Produce inspectors to demand the documentation, Kuroiwa says, and it was there that they realized that these sharks were being traded illegally. According to the expert, the documents specified that the meat came from Ecuador and that it was tollo, a small shark, but not the species that they really were.

Months later, in March of this year, the National Superintendency of Customs and Tax Administration (Sunat) intervened in Callao a shipment with more than one and a half tons of bodies and fins of shortfin mako shark, a species protected by CITES, which was going to be exported to Portugal although it did not have the necessary documentation to do so.

“That was the first time that news came out of a seizure of shark trunks from another place,” says Kuroiwa, and the attention of the inspectors – who until then had been focused on the illegal trade in fins – began to turn to the log traffic.

The first seizure of shark bodies from Ecuador occurred in September. There were more than 11 tons of trunks corresponding to hammerhead shark, Critically Endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), pelagic thresher shark and short fin mako shark, both Endangered, bony thresher shark, Vulnerable, and blue shark ( Prionace glauca) Near Threatened. The first four are protected by CITES, however, they did not carry the necessary documentation and the Customs Declaration of Goods (DAM) indicated that it was 6000 kilograms of fresh tollo, says the prosecutor Ina Suárez.

Since then, FEMA in Tumbes has opened another four investigations into trafficking of shark trunks from Ecuador. In total, the prosecutor points out, including the September seizure, there are more than 24,800 kilos that have been intercepted.

Organized crime

The prosecutor assured Mongabay Latam that the investigations carried out so far indicate that it is “large traffic”, with daily movements of merchandise, where “a lot of money is handled” and where it has been warned that there is possibly organized crime. “It is not just any crime,” says the prosecutor and specifies that, in addition to involving both Peruvian and Ecuadorian companies, “we have noticed the presence of officials who are participating.”

For Oswaldo Rosero, specialist in Ecuador in maritime control and surveillance, there is no logical reason to transfer the bodies from Ecuador to Peru since, unlike the fins, the low value of the meat makes it a business with little interest economic. “The fisherman is being paid more or less 70 or 75 cents a pound versus white fish, such as tuna or weevil, which are species in which the fisherman is paid three, four and even five dollars per pound”, bill. That is the main reason that leads the expert to think that trunk trafficking may be associated with another crime, such as drugs.

Both Rosero and Pablo Guerrero, director of marine conservation for WWF Ecuador, recall that cases have already been detected in which cocaine has been trafficked from Costa Rica to Mexico hidden inside the bodies of sharks. This is also stated in a report from the Financial Intelligence Unit of Mexico.

“What we believe is that there is an issue of financial crime,” says Kuroiwa, “of money laundering,” she says and agrees that the clues found so far point to the presence of organized crime.

Although there are still many doubts to clear about the real interest of the business, what is known is that the meat that comes from Ecuador is consumed in Peru, unlike the fins that are exported again to the Asian market.

Steps not enabled

Prosecutor Suárez told Mongabay Latam that the illegal merchandise is entering the country both through the Binational Border Attention Center (CEBAF), as was the case of the first and largest seizure in September, as well as through non-authorized crossings on the border.

According to Kuroiwa, when due to the pandemic military personnel were sent to the border to control the transit of people, “we found out that there were 22 entry points between legal and illegal entry points” he says, “so if they do not go through the CEBAF , they go through any of these points,” he adds.

From the Ecuadorian side, Guerrero assures that “there are many blind spots, many clandestine crossings, many extremely dangerous places because there are drug trafficking and organized crime issues and we know that the inspectors there work in very complex conditions,” says the expert.

Guerrero details that, added to these adverse conditions, “there is no technical capacity on the part of the inspectors to do something basic, which is the identification of the species.”

In addition, he assures that “there is an urgent need to form control teams between the National Police, the National Customs Service, the Undersecretariat of Fisheries and the Ministry of the Environment”, since for now “the least there is coordination” between the different organisms, he says.

Finally, he adds that “apart from being dangerous places, (on the borders) what there are most are those clandestine warehouses” and specifies that in “Puerto Bolívar, which is a very important port in the province bordering Peru, there are more than 200 warehouses where this type of product is stored ”, he says.

In Ecuador, directed fishing for sharks is prohibited and only those animals that are caught incidentally can be taken advantage of, that is, when they accidentally fall into the nets and hooks that fishermen use to fish for other species. However, this rule has not been free of criticism since, as Mongabay Latam revealed in an investigation, the allegedly incidental catches of sharks in Ecuador have only increased after that law came into force.

In addition, since August of this year, it has been prohibited to commercialize hammerhead sharks in Ecuador regardless of the way in which they have been caught, “but they have sent us that too,” says Kuroiwa.

In addition to the cases of trunks of this species, in October 10 sacks with hammerhead shark, pelagic thresher and blue shark fins were seized and transported into the hold of a bus. As detailed by the prosecutor Suárez, the bags whose load corresponded to about 420 kilos, “came without labeling and it could easily be distinguished that they were fins because the smell was perceived,” she says.

“How is it that there (in Ecuador) the network that processes those sharks has not been discovered?” Asks Kuroiwa. “There is still a lot to dig,” she concludes.

Mongabay Latam sent questions to Produce and the National Customs Service in Ecuador, however, until the publication of this note neither of the two organizations sent their answers.

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