Oct 20

Environmental authorities in Colombia have reported an unprecedented massacre of sharks in the country’s Pacific waters.

Galapagos shark image

Galapagos shark

The mass slaughter of more than 2,000 hammerhead, Galápagos and silky sharks took place in the Malpelo Wildlife Sanctuary, more than 500 kilometres west of Buenaventura, Colombia, and was discovered by a team of divers who were studying sharks in the region. It is thought that the sharks were killed for their valuable fins.

Divers in the study site noticed a total of ten fishing trawlers illegally entering the area, and noted that they were all flying the Costa Rican flag. Sandra Bessudo, top adviser on environmental issues to the Colombian president, was shocked by the report: “When the divers dove, they started finding a large number of animals without their fins. They didn’t see any alive.”

Scalloped hammerhead shark image

A scalloped hammerhead shark is cleaned of parasites by a butterflyfish

Trouble in paradise

The Malpelo Wildlife Sanctuary, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, covers 8,570 square kilometres of marine environment, and acts as a refuge for many threatened species including sharks. Reports from divers in the area indicate that the sanctuary houses impressive schools of more than 200 hammerhead sharks and as many as 1,000 silky sharks. The protected waters of Malpelo are also extremely important to the short-nosed ragged-toothed shark, as the sanctuary is one of the few areas in the world where sightings of this rare species have been confirmed.

Sadly, the presence of such high numbers of sharks, combined with the remoteness of the sanctuary, makes Malpelo a key target for illegal fishing boats from nearby stations. The fishermen trap the sharks and remove their fins before throwing them back into the ocean. One of the divers managed to catch the gruesome aftermath on film, providing footage of the finless bodies of dead sharks on the ocean floor.

Silky shark finning image

Silky shark being finned on a beach in Yemen

Shark fin soup

The fins, brutally removed from the sharks, are generally destined for one purpose: shark fin soup. Considered to be a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, just one bowl of this soup can fetch £63 in a Hong Kong restaurant.

Yet the consumers of shark fin soup are not the only ones paying a high price. It is thought that each of the ten illegal fishing boats seen in Malpelo caught an average of 200 sharks, decimating shark populations and upsetting the delicate natural balance of the ocean ecosystem in which they live.

School of silky sharks image

School of silky sharks with a bait ball

Taking action

The waters of Malpelo are sporadically patrolled by the Colombian navy, which has a small outpost on Malpelo Island. Unfortunately, no navy ships were nearby at the time of the reported shark slaughter.

However, once the news of the finnings was made public, the Colombian navy dispatched a ship to the area and successfully seized an Ecuadorian fishing boat containing 300 kilograms of illegally caught fish, including sharks.

Colombia’s foreign ministry have contacted the Costa Rican government with respect to the shark slaughter, and the latter has condemned the finning and has vowed to co-operate in order to help stop future illegal activities by Costa Rican registered ships. The Costa Rican foreign ministry are threatening to prosecute any Costa Rican flagged ships involved in the massacre.

It is hoped that this inter-country co-operation will be a step towards safeguarding the future of Malpelo’s fascinating marine diversity.

Read more on this story at The Guardian – Shark massacre reported in Colombian waters.

View photos and videos of sharks on ARKive.

Find out more about sharks and their relatives on the IUCN SSC’s Shark Specialist Group website.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author

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