17 Oct 2013

Yehudi and the Sharks I

By Jorge Ventocilla

Jorge Ventocilla:     Where can we find shark fisheries in Panama?  
Yehudi Rodríguez:     There are several fisheries close to coastal communities on the Pacific. Some of them are located in Golfo de Montijo and on the southern part of Veraguas, Mensabé, Búcaro, Aguadulce, Chame, el Agallito, Golfo de Chiriquí. Large volumes of shark fins were recorded as caught on these areas. Some other ports where large volumes of shark fins are unloaded are Vacamonte, Pedregal, Puerto Mutis, the public dock (Muelle Fiscal), Coquira and Remedios. Sphyrna lewini is the most captured species, because if its fins. However, since there are no unloading statistics by species, there are no accurate records to prove this.

JV     Is there a typical profile for shark fishermen in Panama?
YR    No fishermen here can only fish for sharks because this is a seasonal activity. According to some fishermen, the best time for this is when pregnant females come to deliver their offspring during the dry season. Fishermen already know the routes they choose for this. Shark pups are usually found in shallow waters, close to mangroves. These areas are suitable for breeding: quiet places with plenty of food. Golfo de Montijo and Chame mangroves are ideal places, this is why shark pup fishing is massive there. Many sharks are also accidentally caught, when fishing for shrimps with the trawling method. Small pelagic fishes are also caught.

JV    Are the fins removed when the animal is still alive?
YR    Dear or alive. Many times the rest of the body of the animal is just thrown back into the sea. This is very common with the hammerhead shark because dark meat from mature sharks of this species tastes somewhat like urea.

JV    Is there a law on retention of both shark fins and meat?
YR    According to Act No. 9, dated March 16, 2006, small craft fishing boats have the obligation of retaining both the fins and the body of the sharks (even if separated), as long as the fins represent 5% or less of the total weight of the shark. For larger vessels (industrial), shark fins must remain attached to the body. This is because of the difference in size; it is easier for larger vessels to carry the whole animal. The purpose of this law is to force fishermen into unloading both the meat and the fins, thus allowing to use the whole shark and avoid still-living sharks from being returned to the ocean without their fins.

JV    Would you tell us more about working in Golfo de Montijo?
YR    Golfo de Montijo is a RAMSAR site, which means it has been designated as part of a network of Wetlands of International Importance. Despite the limited samples in the area, our team could determine that most of the sharks caught were shark pups and juvenile sharks. Sphyrna lewini was the most caught species . For this reason, we are planning a shark marking project, with the collaboration of students from Universidad de Panama. This project will focus on the Sphyrna lewini. The purpose is to get enough information about their space/time patterns in order to design the strategies for managing conservation and sustainable fishing in the gulf.

JV    Have you any advice for concerned citizens who want to have a proactive approach to this problem?
YR    I think some people may ask: “if the real problem is that fins are being sold, how can I help if I don’t even eat that? We need to be aware and informed, this alone will help in reducing this cruel activity. We need to remember that we are eating shark pups, some of them are not even 1 month old and some others might have even been embryos when caught.

We have been organizing workshops with fishermen in different communities. We have been showing them the results of several studies. Even if this seems almost unbelievable for some people, there are conscious fishermen that have decided not to fish for sharks. They know where the sharks are and they avoid going to these areas. We also need to study another resource that is very important for our economy: fin fish. We need to know more about their interaction with sharks and their life cycle.

To me, the real danger could be large volume fishing, the lack of interest of large corporations that export and profit millions from these resources. If they were really conscious, they would stop this. The price of shark fin has dropped dramatically. Years ago, fishermen would receive B/.40.00 a pound, now they get B/.4.00 and B/.1.00 a pound (for small fins). This is reason enough for some fishermen to stop fishing for sharks, at least for large sharks. This is also the result of actions from conservationists groups. However, we keep wondering how long will this break last.

JV     Shark overfishing is then is a real problem for our ecosystem…
YR    Of course! The lack of sharks in our environment can cause a dramatic transformation of our ecosystem; for example: a rapid increase in forage fish population. These could be fishes that are not of commercial value or fishes that feed on herbivore fishes, like the parrotfish, which is very important for the control of algae population in coral reefs. The increase in long tail stingray (Dasyatis longa) population is an example of how a marine species is affected by the absence of a top predator. We really don’t know exactly how this will impact other species of commercial interest, like shrimps (which are part of its regular diet).

In general, we know very little about the effects of reduced shark populations. Current low numbers for fishing activity in our country could be the result of an unbalanced marine ecosystem (and also the result of overfishing) due to the declining numbers of this predator.

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.