Big Fish Under Threat
Fishing for Shark Fins around Bay Islands Intensifies

September 1st, 2008
by Thomas Tomczyk

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Seahorses sold for a dollar and shark fin (top right) sold for three dollars at a roatan resort. (Photo James Foley)

Seahorses sold for a dollar and shark fin (top right) sold for three dollars at a roatan resort. (Photo James Foley)

Sharks, despite descending from an ancient lineage of vertebrates dating back some 400 million years, are at their lowest point of all time. These apex predators rely on an entire food chain being healthy in order to support them which makes them especially vulnerable to a changing habitat. Bay Islands’ fragile reef has supported hundreds of sharks. But their fishing falls in a gray legal area, which many fishermen and shark parts vendors are taking advantage.

Amongst Roatan’s dozens of tourist souvenir shops, shark fins are sold for just a couple dollars. Fishermen on Saint Helene have been seen with shark fins, where sometimes sharks are caught and butchered in plain site. In February, while on a research trip to Utila’s Pigeon Cay, a Utila fisherman caught a 7′ hammerhead which he butchered on a dock. James Foley, director of research and development at Roatan Marine Park, saw the entire incident. “In the end fishing for shark is a gray area,” says Foley. “Shark’s longevity and low rates of reproduction make them especially vulnerable to overexploitation.”

One of the most well-informed people as to the condition of sharks around Roatan is Maurilio Mirabella, owner of Roatan’s Waihuka Adventure. Waihuka is a dive operation specializing in shark dives on the Cordelia Bank, three miles south of Coxen Hole.

In 2006, while diving with a group of tourists, Mirabella noticed his first shark with a cut fin. In 2007 another shark appeared that survived an encounter with fishermen trying to cut his fin and throwing him overboard once they cut his fin. In March Mirabella received a phone call about a shark that washed up in Coxen Hole. “Only his head was there. He was completely gutted,” says Mirabella. “If you kill one shark, you kill four groupers, 12 snappers, it affects the entire ecosystem.”

Mirabella sometimes ends up paying local fishermen to cut lines with a shark they’ve just caught. Sometimes he waits around in his dive boat until a fishing boat leaves the area where sharks are present. It’s a game of cat and mouse, and Mirabella says that the threat to Roatan’s sharks is intensifying. Part of the shark-fishing problem, Mirabella believes, is generated by locals who kill the fish for shark oil, a liquid considered a cure-all. Additionally, shark fins sometimes “surface” in La Ceiba, likely in the town’s three Chinese restaurants which serve shark fin a-la-carte as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. [/private]

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