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CITES halts Ecuador’s shark trade; trafficking persists amid lack of transparency

  • Ecuador is one of the top exporters of sharks in the world.
  • In February, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) suspended commercial trade in sharks and rays from Ecuador, after the country had failed to take measures to guarantee sharks were being fished sustainably.
  • Protected species from Ecuador enter Peru through the cities of Tumbes and Piura. The fins are then sent to Asia, but the meat is sold in local markets.
  • A lack of transparency has made it difficult to stem this criminal trade, according to experts consulted by Mongabay Latam.

Illegal trafficking of shark fins and bodies from Ecuador to Peru has gone on for years.

On Feb. 6, Ecuador announced measures to restrict fishing of these animals. The announcement came in response to an ultimatum given in November 2023 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) demanding the country take measures to guarantee sustainable shark fishing. This followed CITES’ findings of a series of irregularities in shark trading, primarily discrepancies in the import and export numbers of fins reported by Ecuador and Peru.

Ecuador had until the end of March to respond satisfactorily to the requirements imposed by CITES, otherwise the exportation of sharks and rays would be suspended. But since CITES’ ultimatum, there were at least three seizures of exports on the border with Peru. On March 11, after this story was originally published on Mongabay Latam on Feb. 21, CITES made good on its threat and suspended commercial trade in sharks and rays from Ecuador.

According to experts consulted by Mongabay Latam, a lack of transparency has made it difficult to stem this criminal trade.

A need to establish fishing quotas

Peru is a transit country for shark fins en route to Asia. But it’s a destination country for shark meat, sold as tollo, after coming in through the Peruvian cities of Tumbes or Piura.

The market figures are different in Peru and Ecuador because shark fishing lies on the fringes of the law. In 2021, for example, CITES found a discrepancy of more than 33 metric tons of fins between what Ecuador reported exporting to Peru and what Peru reported importing from Ecuador.

Due to this and other observations, one of the requirements that CITES imposed on Ecuador was that it must establish maximum volumes of incidental and commercial shark fishing. This is because while national legislation only permits selling sharks caught incidentally as bycatch — that is, those accidentally trapped in fishing gear set for other species — experts have been saying for years that thousands of sharks are intentionally caught under the guise of bycatch.

Sharks unloaded in Manta, Ecuador, in 2022. Image by Franklin Vega.

In response to the request from CITES, on Feb. 6, the Public Institute for Aquaculture and Fisheries Research (IPIAP), in its role as the CITES Scientific Authority in Ecuador, indicated that it had prepared non-detriment findings (NDFs) to protect five species of shark.

NDFs are scientific studies of animals and plants that countries must carry out if they want to export species protected by CITES. If the studies have a positive result — that is, if they find that exporting the species will not be detrimental to its survival — the species can be exported. If not, the country cannot export it. But it is not enough for an NDF to be positive; it must also set a limit on how many animals can be exported.

IPIAP posted on X (Twitter) that the NDFs had “undergone rigorous revisions by national and international experts,” without specifying who they were. Mongabay Latam contacted IPIAP to inquire about the content of the NDFs, but, contradictorily, they responded that “the information requested is not within the scope of our institution.” Mongabay Latam also contacted the Ecuadorian Ministry of Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fisheries for their account but received no response.

The fact that these NDFs are not available to the public concerns scientists and conservationists. “People know that there are NDFs, but they don’t know what they consist of, they don’t know the content,” said Hugo Echeverría, a lawyer specializing in environmental criminal law. Neither civil society organizations nor the media have been able to access the NDFs, as they haven’t been publicly available since a rule signed April 13, 2023, by Ecuador’s then-Minister of Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fisheries Julio Prado. This regulation established the “confidentiality of data from the fishing sector,” allegedly to protect the “social economy of knowledge, creativity and innovation.”

Sharks unloaded in Manta in 2022. Image by Franklin Vega.

In practice, this rule hides all information about fishing and exportation of marine species, including sharks, Echeverría said.

“There is zero transparency and access to information. This should all be public, even more so when Ecuador has a yellow card imposed by the European Union for not controlling the illegal fishing supply chain,” said Franklin Vega, editor of the environmental blog Bitácora Ambiental.

Experts’ principal worry about these and previous NDFs is that they may be omitting real and relevant information about shark fishing. “They are using incomplete and useless data to issue NDFs that are clearly not based on statistics from real studies, but [only] on landing data,” said Cristina Cely, director of the environmental organization One Health Ecuador. “The data doesn’t consider seizures and everything that is illegally unloaded.”

On the other hand, “no maximum percentage for bycatch has yet been established and the limits are decided by sector officials who, furthermore, are not obligated to report it,” Cely said. She estimates that port inspectors allow up to one-third of a load to be considered bycatch. “Unofficially, we know that about 30% is allowed in longline vessels inspected upon arrival at the port.”

Maritime intelligence specialist Oswaldo Rosero agreed there is poor inspection and registration of fish landings in Ecuador. “If there were inspections on arrival, there should be up-to-date statistics, almost in real time,” Rosero said. “But that doesn’t exist. In the 2020 Fishing Law there was talk of an information system, but it doesn’t work. This is a very powerful indicator that things still aren’t in order.”

Without access to the NDFs, key questions, such as whether or not these studies include quotas indicating how many species can be sustainably traded or what scientific information was used to prepare them, remain unanswered.

Sharks’ double legal status

There’s a problem even more fundamental than illegal shark trafficking, according to lawyer Echeverría. “Sharks have a double legal status, as a protected species and as a hydrobiological resource. But it is the fishing law that establishes rules for the shark, not the environmental law, which serves to protect fauna. The objective of the fishing law is to use the resource. Yes, in a sustainable way, but ultimately it’s exploitation,” he said.

For Echeverría, it is contradictory that direct fishing is prohibited while commercialization of bycatch is allowed, especially when bycatch limits have not been established. This is why, he pointed out, Ecuador should have resolved the issue in 2007, when it published Decree 486 establishing the conservation and management of the shark as state policy; or in 2020, when it issued a new fishing law. Most recently, after the demands from CITES, the country had until this March to adjust its legal framework for the protection of species.

Seizure of sharks in Peru coming from Ecuador. Image courtesy of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.


According to Echeverría, Ecuador could have requested an extension to issue regulations to meet CITES’ requirements, “but while the regulation is being developed, the bycatch quota should be zero, as a precautionary principle.” The problem is that there is no sign that the regulation process is making progress, due to the opacity of public information. “The level of access to information is still not ideal. They tend to limit access to information that isn’t related to the standards on the subject,” he said.

Added to this is the serious distrust toward the state authorities that should be controlling and inspecting this activity. In July 2021, the Ecuadorian Coordinator of Organizations for the Defense of Nature and the Environment asked the state to describe illegal, unregulated and undeclared fishing activities in Ecuador but never received a response. That same year, the National Assembly refused to approve a moratorium on shark bycatch.

“Both the ministry of the environment and the ministry of production have completely dismissed the concern; they said that everything was fine,” said Cely of One Health Ecuador, referring to the constant questioning of the legal framework and the role of officials. “The state always dismissed any questioning. Finally, CITES ended up agreeing with us,” she said.

Peru: More than 20 investigations opened in four years

In Peru, there is also distrust due to irregular procedures that have assisted this environmental crime. A report from the Comptroller’s Office showed that between 2020 and 2023, seven officials from the Ministry of Production (Produce) irregularly issued 35 permits for the export of more than 24 metric tons of shark fins. Mongabay Latam consulted the ministry for this story, but it did not respond to requests for an interview.

On the border, the Specialist Environmental Attorney (FEMA) in Tumbes is investigating other cases of officials who assisted illegal shark trafficking. “We have two cases for [the alleged crime of] illegal granting of [shark trading] rights,” prosecutor Ina Suárez told Mongabay. “Officials from the Regional Production Directorate in Tumbes and the National Fishing Health Organization are being investigated. One of them, unfortunately, is still working.”

Suárez said her office intervenes in trafficking of fins and torsos of Ecuadorian origin as well as for species caught in Peruvian waters. In this work, they have found landing certificates issued by state officials saying the shark is another species. “When they present the documentation, the information says tollo or something else, when in reality it is shark. That constitutes an illegal granting of rights,” she said.

Despite being prohibited, shark fishing in Ecuador occurs. Sharks are always landed in the port of Manta. Image courtesy of Bitácora Ambiental.

Since 2020, FEMA Tumbes has opened an investigation in at least 20 cases in which vehicles carrying shark from Ecuador were seized. The cases involve both individuals as well as legal entities. Some investigations are ongoing while others are in the intermediate stage; that is, the accusation has already been formalized before the judiciary and the trial should begin soon. The penalty requirements range from 4-7 years in prison, according to the Peruvian Penal Code.

The means of transportation are varied in order to evade inspections, Suárez said. “Not only are there refrigerated trucks, but also buses that carry vats of sharks. There are also motorcycle trucks that are hired to transport illegal goods coming from Ecuador,” she said. In one recent seizure at the border, on Feb. 12, FEMA Tumbes and the National Police seized two motorcycles transporting 1,197 kilograms (2,640 pounds) of hammerhead sharks, several species of which are classified as critically endangered, and detained four people.

For lawyer César Ipenza, who specializes in environmental issues, all investigations would ideally include retaining the seized vehicles and not just the goods, since wildlife trafficking is included in the law against organized crime. “The Santa District Attorney has been working with prosecutors in charge of criminal asset forfeiture, where beyond the criminal penalty for the traffickers, they also lose their assets and the vehicles with which the resources are illegally transported,” he said.

In November 2022, for example, the Specialized Asset Forfeiture Court in Tumbes ordered confiscation from a married couple of a refrigerated truck that was used two years earlier to transport 419 shark specimens of various species with a total weight of 11 metric tons.

“This also helps judges and prosecutors understand what shark trafficking entails. It’s not just an impact on one species in particular. Sharks play a strategic role in the sea. Legal officials must understand what shark trafficking means for the deterioration of our seas,” Ipenza said.

Illegal trafficking and other crimes

Some observers associate illegal shark trafficking with other organized crimes, especially when it comes to their meat. “Shark is not a high-value catch. A shark is worth much less than a billfish or a tuna. We believe with all certainty that this fishing is masking other activities that are more serious crimes,” Rosero, the maritime intelligence specialist, said.

In September 2020, the Ecuadorian Navy seized the longline fishing vessel Pedalex with 300 kg (660 lbs) of cocaine on board. The ship was dedicated to fishing for various species, including sharks, and had previously been detained for carrying substances “subject to audit.” The following year, 23 people were sentenced to 13 years in prison for drug trafficking.

In September 2021, the Coast Guard Command (Coguar) seized the Popeye 1 vessel near the Galapagos Islands after discovering half a metric ton of drugs among a load of catch, 91% of which was protected species of shark.

Refrigerated truck where Peruvian police found almost a metric ton of sharks for sale in the city of Chiclayo, northern Peru. Image courtesy of the National Police of Peru.

On the other hand, after the seizure of more than half a metric ton of sharks of Ecuadorian origin in a market in Chiclayo, a city in northern Peru, authorities established that the Ecuadorian criminal organization Los Tiburoneros (“The Shark Hunters”), with links in Peru, led the illegal trafficking of species protected under CITES. The presidency of Ecuador maintains a list of such criminal organizations, which are mainly accused of crimes such as drug trafficking, assassination, extortion, arms trafficking and human trafficking.

According to Rosero, Ecuador could have better control if it were to implement the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), an international treaty in place since 2016 that aims to prevent, discourage and eliminate illegal fishing in more than 60 countries, and to which Ecuador is a party.

“The PSMA establishes inspection procedures for foreign ships. It’s exactly the same as what should be done with a national ship. These intervention procedures already exist but are not applied. And the national fleet has grown disproportionately, without any control, without any planning,” he said.

Ecuador had until March 28th to adopt measures it should have implemented progressively for 17 years. Having failed to comply with this CITES requirement, the country is now the first in Latin America to be subject to a shark trade suspension.

Banner image: Seizure of sharks in Peru that arrived from Ecuador. Image courtesy of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Feb. 21, 2024. It has been updated to reflect the fact that on March 11, CITES suspended commercial trade in sharks and rays from Ecuador.

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