19 Sep 2013

Yehudi and the Sharks II

By: Jorge Ventocilla

Yehudi Rodríguez could have been 7 years old, at most, when she watched a National Geographic show that, in her own words, would change her life. The show depicted scuba divers who were fishing for sharks.

Yehudi then asked her father, who also happened to be a diver, “why do they kill them at their own home?”; then, again, she asked him “have you killed any sharks?”. Her father answered: “one”, and he whispered to himself “…with no real justification”.

-“When I grow up, I will protect sharks!”…and just like that, Yehudi ended the conversation.

Ten years later, Yehudi was a Biology student at Universidad de Panamá and her father was still a diver. He reminded her of her promise and also about his: he would not kill a shark ever again.

Even though she could not base her graduation work on sharks, as she would have liked (her professors recommended other topics), Yehudi had the chance of meeting a Mexican professor who does specialize in sharks, Dr. Carlos Villavicencio. With Dr. Villavicencio´s help, Yehudi traveled to Mexico (thanks to student loan from IFARHU) to a fisheries observation program. When she came back, she worked as a volunteer at Smithsonian Institute’s Molecular Lab; however, she never forgot about her goal of specializing in sharks.  Years later, she was awarded with an OAS scholarship and returned to Mexico to finish her master degree program at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, where she could meet her goal.

Back in Panama, there was a new opportunity: one of her friends told her about a job post that was meant especially for her, of all 3 million people in Panama. The Office for the Conservation of Water Resources (ARAP) needed a professional with knowledge of sharks.
After being hired, her first assignment was to draft the National Action Plan for the Preservation of Sharks. She proposed that Biology graduate candidates could collaborate in drafting this plan. She wanted to give these students the opportunity she didn’t have. Her proposal was consequently approved.

In Panama, shark finning (the removal and retention of shark fins while discarding the rest of the living animal) started back in the early 80’s and, even though its dramatic consequences are not actually known by the average Panamanian, the impact of this activity in shark populations and their ecosystems (with sharks at the top of the food chain), is huge. “Shark fishing in the early days had a very different meaning”, Yehudi says. “Back in the 40’s, shark liver oil (rich in vitamin A) was in high demand. However, this product started to be synthetically produced, which was good news for sharks. Unfortunately, in the 70’s, there was a high demand for shark fins, by request of the Asian market, where shark fin soup is considered a delicacy.”

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that shark fishing shows numbers of approx. 839,517 tonnes caught per year; however, an additional 285,000 tonnes (approx.) may go unreported. In Panama, there are a lot of people who are unaware of how big shark fishing is here, let alone shark finning.  Despite existent laws and regulations, there is still a black market for this.  

Yehudi says that “foundations as MarViva have contributed to spread the word about this problem, but still most people remains unaware”. I ask then, “do the rest of Central American countries have this same problem?” She replies: “currently, and also because of overfishing, attention has been drawn to newborn sharks…almost in all of Central America, newborn sharks are being captured with this purpose. The situation is very critical, especially for the Sphyrna lewini species or scalloped hammerhead.  However, big or small, shark populations worldwide are being threatened by this.”

Currently there are eight shark sanctuaries in the world: The Bahamas, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Palau, Dominica, Tokelau, Honduras and French Polynesia.  Many countries have applied strict regulations for controlling shark fishery. Additionally, the guidelines of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora are followed by many countries, including Panama.

Many Panamanians are disgusted by the idea of eating the meat of this animal due to the fact that sharks are perceived as “human-eating” animals. However, what many of these same people don’t know is that, sometimes, when we eat “ceviche de corvina” we are actually eating shark. This meat comes mostly from juvenile or newborn sharks. In addition, when you go to the fish market or to the supermarket and buy “corvinata” or “cazón” it is actually all-white meat (no dark meat) from small and medium-sized sharks.

END OF PART I

On Part II of this interview, Jorge Ventocilla will ask Yehudi Rodríguez what can we do regarding this serious problem. Don’t miss Part II of this interview, on the next full moon.
 

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