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Sinking hope of justice as exporter of 26-ton shark fin cargo gets token fine

  • In July 2020, Ecuadoran company FishChoez & Villegas S.A. applied belatedly to the fisheries ministry for a permit to export fins from protected shark species.
  • The request raised suspicion among Ecuadoran authorities as the shipment had already been sent to Hong Kong some seven months earlier.
  • A review of the documentation showed the cargo matched the 26 tons of fins seized in April of the same year by Hong Kong customs officers.
  • Environmental and fisheries lawyers say it appears likely there will be no accountability in Ecuador for the massive trafficking attempt, with the exporter fined less than $4,000 — just 0.3% of the cargo’s estimated value of $1.1 million.

In April 2020, customs officers in Hong Kong made one of the largest seizures of shark fins in history: 26 metric tons, all of it exported from Ecuador. This number represents an estimated 38,500 sharks, all of which were classed as threatened species.

The discovery caused global outrage and prompted condemnation by the Ecuadoran government. Yet, 17 months later, no criminal charges have been brought against those responsible. Experts and environmental organizations say this example of wildlife smuggling — the world’s fourth-largest illegal business, surpassed only by the trafficking of drugs, people and counterfeit goods — will go unpunished.

In June, Ecuador’s fisheries ministry announced that it had fined the individual listed as the exporter $3,870 — barely 0.3% of the cargo’s estimated value of $1.1 million. However, it has since been revealed that the exporter is just one piece of a complex puzzle.

Mongabay Latam obtained information gathered by the Ministry of Environment and Water (MAAE) while investigating the case in 2020, which was later made available to prosecutors. These reports bring to light some surprising information: According to the documents and officials working within the ministry at the time, Ecuadoran company FishChoez & Villegas S.A. had requested a permit from local environmental authorities to export a shipment matching the one seized in Hong Kong.

The shipment of 26 tons of shark fins that was seized in Hong Kong in early May 2020. Image by HK Customs.

Company in the spotlight

The two containers left Ecuador and arrived in Hong Kong in January 2020. They remained in a warehouse until April 30, when customs officials discovered the contents of the first shipment, and the second one four days later. Customs inspectors became suspicious upon noticing that the two declarations prepared by the exporter said “pescado seco” in Spanish, rather than the usual “dried fish” in English.

Inside bags stacked within the containers, they found thousands of dried fins from thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus) and silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis), species that are both listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Trade in both species is also strictly regulated under CITES, the global wildlife trade convention, which requires an export permit issued by CITES in their country of origin, in this case Ecuador.

News of the discovery spread quickly around the world, and talks between Ecuador and China began as the countries sought to find those responsible.

The environment ministry launched an investigation in May 2020 to gather intelligence, mainly from the customs service and the fisheries ministry, in an attempt to piece together the events that led to the export of the fins.

Three months later, in August 2020, MAAE issued a memorandum outlining the progress it had made and the information it had been able to gather. This document was shared with the parliamentary commission on biodiversity, which was also investigating the case despite “many stumbling blocks … especially at the beginning,” according to former parliamentarian Juan Cárdenas. There was “a sort of inertia to leave things as they were,” he said. Mongabay Latam has seen this memorandum, which includes the revelation that Ecuador’s environmental authorities received a request — on July 1, 2020, three months after the seizure — for the export of a cargo that matched the one seized in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.

The memorandum states that, in this export request, FishChoez & Villegas S.A.’s lawyer, Humboldt Cañizares Garcés, asked the CITES Management Authority, a part of MAAE, to authorize the export of three containers of “dried fish including shark fins.” Officials were surprised to learn that the request was lodged months after the goods were shipped.

Environmental lawyer Andrés Delgado says that CITES permits must be processed before an export takes place. César Ipenza, a lawyer in neighboring Peru, agrees that this is a requirement for CITES-regulated species. The process in this case would have required Ecuador to carry out a study known as a non-detriment finding, essentially assessing how many individuals from a species’ population can be harvested without endangering the whole population. Based on these results, “the state assigns an export quota,” Ipenza says. To ensure this quota isn’t exceeded, authorities need to know what, and how much, is intended to be traded before the transaction takes place.

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Sharks being unloaded at a port in Manta, Ecuador.

Along with the export request, the MAAE memorandum says that the company attached documentation that matched the shipment seized in Hong Kong in April 2020. “They are the very same,” Delgado, who at the time was the environment ministry’s legal coordinator responsible for referring the findings to prosecutors, told Mongabay Latam. “It’s as though they realized the error they had made, that they were going to be found out, and that they should fix it.”

For Ipenza, the fact that the company belatedly requested a CITES permit “shows that what they were trying to do was launder [the fins] and give [the shipment] an appearance of legality.”

The company enclosed mobilization guides, issued by the fisheries ministry, which allow the transportation of marine resources within the country, along with two export drafts. According to Delgado, it was these receipts that confirmed it was the same shipment that had been previously identified by the authorities as the one seized in Hong Kong. “The containers matched,” said a source from the CITES Management Authority, who asked to remain anonymous. The first container held 415 bags of dried fish, equivalent to 15,129 kilograms (33,354 pounds), with the second holding 326 bags of dried fish, totaling 12,574 kg (27,721 lb). The exporter was recorded as one Joel Eduardo Ramírez Espinoza, who was fined for exporting the prohibited cargo.

Delgado says that, when he realized what had happened, he could not understand why the company had effectively turned itself in. “I didn’t understand when I saw it. It literally alerted the authorities to the fact that they might have committed the illegal activity,” he says. Marcelo Mata, the environment minister at the time, also confirmed the findings to Mongabay Latam. However, he said it’s up to the justice system to establish guilt, and that what the MAAE did was simply state the facts: that the company belatedly requested a CITES permit for an export that corresponded to the containers identified as those that arrived in Hong Kong months earlier.

Dried shark fins. Image by Michelle Carrere.

On Aug. 1, according to the environment ministry, the CITES Management Authority rejected FishChoez & Villegas S.A.’s application, informing the company that the permit had been submitted late. The response was copied to the ministry’s legal team “with a view to being presented to the prosecutor” and “to initiate appropriate action given that the export declared by the applicant is considered an illegal activity as outlined in environmental legislation.”

Humboldt Cañizares told Mongabay Latam by telephone that he is no longer the company’s lawyer, and that he was only responsible for processing the export request. Washington Olmedo Choez Villegas, legal representative for FishChoez & Villegas S.A., said he had no knowledge of the matter and did not know either Cañizares, the lawyer, or Ramírez, the exporter.

pesca incidental
Dried shark fins for sale in Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Diálogo Chino.

According to former minister Mata, the reason why no known criminal action has been brought, despite the fact that the exporter has already been fined and there’s evidence linking Fish&Choez & Villegas S.A. to the illegal cargo, is that “civil law works quickly, very quickly, and that makes the news. Criminal law, on the other hand, goes at a different speed.” He did, however, confirm that the prosecutor’s office is investigating the case.

But in Delgado’s opinion, prosecutors should already be able to file charges based on the facts unearthed. “I am surprised by how slowly the case is progressing,” he said.

When contacted by Mongabay Latam, the prosecutors’ office declined to discuss the case, saying preliminary investigations are underway and that the details are “confidential.”

Production ministry issues fine

The current fisheries law, which came into force in April 2020, the same month the Hong Kong authorities made the discovery of the shark fins, punishes illegal fishing with fines of up to $700,000. Joel Eduardo Ramírez Espinoza, the exporter of the cargo seized in Hong Kong, was sanctioned under the 2008 fishing law, for which he was fined the equivalent of less than $4,000.

Ecuadoran environmental lawyer Ricardo Crespo says this is probably because the offense was considered to have been committed when the cargo was shipped, and not when the fins were discovered at customs.

Shark fin. Image courtesy of Oceana.

He warns, however, that “this will serve as a precedent demanding that environmental administrative law cannot apply derisory fines. The fins case is a scandal.”

“It’s a mockery,” says Oswaldo Rosero, a maritime control and surveillance specialist based in Ecuador, adding that “the effect of having a fine of that nature is that we are almost, almost talking about legalizing impunity.”

Mongabay Latam wrote to the fisheries ministry to ask why it had imposed a fine that represents just 0.3% of the goods’ value. The ministry did not respond by the time this article was originally published in Spanish.

Rosero has advised several Latin American countries in the management of resources and marine protected areas, was marine operations director for U.S. environmental organization WildAid for almost 10 years, and is a professor of marine operations analysis at the Naval War Academy of Ecuador. “Beyond the company at the center, the common factor in these investigations is that the network is never uncovered, because we are not talking about the work of a single person or company,” he says. In other words, “it’s like relieving the symptoms of an illness without treating the root cause,” he adds.

Catching sharks is prohibited in Ecuador, and only those constituting an “incidental catch” (that is, those caught by accident in nets or on hooks meant to catch other species) can be kept. On top of that, only 30 % of a vessel’s total catch may be incidental. However, experts agree that these limits are not respected and that, under the guise of bycatch, thousands of sharks are caught to feed a global market that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates to be worth $1 billion every year.

Indeed, Humboldt Cañizares, FishChoez & Villegas S.A.’s former legal representative, told Mongabay Latam that the fins the company sent to Hong Kong were bycatch.

According to former environment minister Mata, 80 tons of shark fins were legally exported to Peru in 2020. “It seems obvious to me that 80 tons is rather a lot, or unlikely to be incidental, because we are referring only to fins,” he says.

Between the time sharks arrive at port and the moment they are exported, there are plenty of opportunities for bad-faith actors to game the system, Delgado says. The first of these occurs at the time of unloading, where “the fisheries observer has to certify that the vessel does not have more than the permitted percentage” of bycatch, he says. However, “sometimes 80% of the load is shark,” and even then some fisheries observers say “OK, no problem.” Then, Rosero says, the official issues a commercial guide indicating that the shipment complies with the bycatch quota required by law. From that moment on, he adds, “every step [the cargo] takes is illegal.”

When the sharks arrive at Ecuadoran customs for export, there’s another weak link or “blind spot” in the chain: an official must confirm that what is actually being exported corresponds to what has been declared. When it comes to species that require CITES permits, as in the case of the 26 metric tons of fins sent to Hong Kong, these documents must be in order. But if they aren’t, Delgado says, some companies make a deal with corrupt customs officials and “the cargo gets the go-ahead to be sent.”

“Everything depends on how the documents are handled,” Rosero says.

Sharks being unloaded at a port in Ecuador.

This is how shark trafficking, either for fins or complete animals, can happen, even among species such as hammerhead sharks for which trading is strictly prohibited, experts say. Four hammerhead species have had complete protection under Ecuadoran law since 2020 and cannot be commercialy traded. However, in early July this year, environmental prosecutors in Peru seized 416 hammerhead sharks being shipped from Ecuador. All were juveniles.

Cecilia Medina, an advisor to the outgoing parliamentary commission on biodiversity prior to the new government taking office in May, says the commission’s investigation made it possible to establish “the general panorama” of the network involved in shark trafficking. “But until the case goes to court, until a judgement is made, and until justice is done, unfortunately it remains merely a political act by parliament,” she says.

In concluding its investigation, the commission called “to prohibit the commercialization of all specimens, parts or derivatives of all kinds of rays, sharks and protected, threatened and endangered species caught via incidental fishing” for a period of one year, with the possibility of extending the ban by another year.

Although the motion was ready to be heard in parliament, it must now be reevaluated by the new commission. Former parliamentarians say they fear their proposal will come to nothing. Mongabay Latam contacted Washington Varela, the current chair of the biodiversity commission, but he did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

“Justice that is delayed is justice that is denied,” says Oswaldo Rosero, adding that “any trafficker or offender will always try to bide time so that media pressure is relieved. When that happens, those involved have the opportunity to talk to judicial authorities.”

Banner image by Kipu Visual.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on July 27, 2021.

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