Galapagos Shark Massacre: An Eyewitness Account

Posted on August 4, 2011
Written by: Katharina Fietz - Shark Savers, Germany

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This week a shadow is hovering over the usually peaceful little town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on  San Cristobal island in the Galapagos archipelago. A fishing boat from Manta (a port on the central coast of Ecuador) has been anchored in the port for a few days and is bearing a sad cargo. The mutilated carcasses of 379 illegally caught sharks are onboard the vessel, which the National Park Galapagos and the Ecuadorian Navy confiscated on July 19th.

The crew of 30 fishermen were arrested and they are now awaiting trial for using longlines, a method that is illegal in the Galapagos. The catch included 303 thresher sharks, 42 silky sharks, 24 blue sharks, 5 scalloped hammerheads, 2 tiger sharks, 1 Galapagos shark, 1 shortfin mako and 1 unidentified shark, all found in the storage room of the boat. The fins were already cut off the majority of the animals and stored separately on ice, which suggests that they were caught for the Asian market where shark fins are traded as highly valuable goods.

A few days after the boat docked in San Cristobal, a team consisting of scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), together with officials from the Galapagos National Park, went out to measure the sharks and to take samples. What the team found below deck that morning was a mass grave. Even the long-experienced scientists were deeply saddened and dismayed by what they discovered. For ten hours, these hundreds of shark corpses were heaved onto the deck, as fin, teeth, and vertebrate samples were taken and the lengths were recorded for every animal. The little space on deck rapidly filled up with bodies and fins, the floor was slippery, and the team had trouble finding space to work.

In the afternoon the boat headed out to sea where some of the helpers started returning the carcasses to the sea a few kilometers offshore, while others continued working. For many on board these were the hardest hours – the images of the many dead mutilated bodies slowly disappearing into the deep burned into their memories. “This is such a big loss on so many levels” a professor of USC commented. Also on board were three of the responsible fishermen under police supervision. They were supposed to witness that no one would sell these sharks parts, and to see that their actions resulted in nothing more than a waste of time, money and lives. The data recorded about these animals will be used for scientific research, as very little is known about some of these species. Maybe this way the needless deaths of so many animals will not have been completely in vain.

According to park officials, this shark seizure is the biggest in the history of the Galapagos National park – a sad record. Even sadder however is the fact that this by no means is an exception. The illegal slaughter of sharks and the trade in their fins is a flourishing business worldwide. The demand for shark products, especially in the Asian market, continues to grow, pushing more and more species towards the brink of extinction. The demand for shark fins to be used in soup is the main reason why tens of millions of sharks are being killed every year. It may be of some comfort to know that public authorities sometimes – as in this case in the Galapagos – succeed in preventing a few illegal catches in protected areas. However, a concerted effort needs to be made to eliminate the trade completely and to shut down the market for shark fins and other shark products. Otherwise the top predator of our oceans, as well as entire ecosystems, will face the unpredictable outcome of mass extinctions.