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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Cementerio de los tiburones

ECUADOR | Wednesday, 4 July 2012 | Views [954]

Another batch of hammerhead, that's a larger male not fitting into the crate (can tell the sex by the two claspers).

Another batch of hammerhead, that's a larger male not fitting into the crate (can tell the sex by the two claspers).

If you read my previous story "My Grimmest Day in Tofo", you knew how heart wrenching and difficult it was to witness first hand the finning of sharks right on the beach. I would never forget the image of piles of sharks and rays at the market "post-hacking", the meat sold for just a few meticais to the locals, who may be unknowingly consuming meat high in mercury. Sadly, that scene may have prepared me for what's to come in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.

Along the coast of Ecuador and around the Galapagos Islands, sharks were abundant until recent years; the population of several species have collapsed dramatically due to fishing. Only on the Galapagos Islands are there legislation against the fishing of sharks and recognition of how serious the problem is; elsewhere along the coast, there are no restrictions, only guidelines that dictate the number of sharks allowed as "by-catch", although that number seems "negotiable" and loosely regulated. As such, it is business as usual for fishermen to fish for sharks.

The Puerto Lopez fish market is located right on the beach. Fishermen bring their boat to shore, and immediately a flurry of activities ensue: buyers climb on board to see the catch, deals are made, and money are exchanged. Some catch, such as tunas, are targeted for fisheries to be canned; those fish are immediately put on ice and loaded into trucks from the boats. Other fish, such as marlins or shrimps, are popular with restaurants, so those buyers may buy just enough to supply their restaurant for a day or week. Some buyers are fishmongers who buy a variety of fish, and in turn resell them to restaurants or other buyers. Finally, there are the buyers, perhaps like myself, who just want to buy a fish or two to prepare for a meal. Besides the fishermen and buyers, there are also the carriers who transport the fish in crates from the boats to the trucks or butchers, the ice suppliers with their truck full of ice, the butchers who each has their station ready to cut and clean the fish for the buyers, and the restaurants who are open only when the fish market is active to feed everyone.  All the businesses obviously make up an industry that employs numerous people and is critical to the local economy.

The group with whom I'm volunteering, Equilibrium Azul, has made one of its mission to gather shark data to provide to government institutions, and to push for legislations that will ban or better control shark fishing. Every morning, we head to the fish market, just a few minutes walk from the volunteer house, to monitor fishing activities and to gather data. We arrive between 6:30 AM and 7:30 AM, and the market will already be teeming with activities: boats coming ashore, transporters everywhere with their crates full of fish supported on their shoulder, trucks backed into the beach with doors opened, full of ice and ready to receive. We walk around, looking for sharks and rays (also popular though not to the extend of sharks) in boats, trucks, or butcher's table. If found in tact and not yet butchered, we try to measure them; some fishermen and buyers are nice and perhaps even proud and thus allow us, while others know our objective and shoo us away. If already butchered, we will at least count them and determine the gender. Some days of the week are busier than others; it seems most fishing boats sail out to sea on Sundays and Thursdays, and may stay up to three nights at sea. Therefore, if a boat goes out on Sunday, it may return on Tuesday or Wednesday, and if it goes out on Thursday, it likely returns on Saturday. The tides and the moon phases also deeply impact fishing, since both directly impact the conditions of the sea. I've learned if it's full or new moon and low tide, that is possibly the worst condition to fish.

My first day at the market, I was quite unprepared for the number of sharks and rays encountered: 50+ sharks, mostly of the species hammerhead (in Spanish: martillo, scientific name: sphyrna zygaena), almost all juvenile so quite small in size, only around 1 meter long. Some boats have more other types of fish than sharks, so I gave them the benefit of a doubt that the sharks were by-catch; other boats had way more sharks and only a few other fish, so it was clear they were targeting sharks. Second day at the market, there were over 100 sharks, again mostly hammerhead, and secondary is the pelagic thresher (in Spanish: rabón bueno, scientific name: alopias pelagic), a beautiful shark with a curved, long tail and large, rounded flippers. The fins on the juvenile sharks were so tiny, it was literally like cutting off the hand of a baby! When I got the opportunity to measure a shark, I was excited to be able to finally touch one; its skin was smooth but very firm, the teeth were sharp, and its eyes were almost "cartoon" looking, very dark and round, like in Japanese anime.

Once a deal is made on the sharks (I've noticed two buyers who troll the market daily and target sharks to procure), they are almost always brought to one specific butcher, whom I've nicknamed "the sushi master". Despite what he's doing, there is something very "zen" and admirable about the way he approaches his work, never rough and resistant but smooth, precise, and with conviction; if he ever gives up working at the fish market, he would make a great sushi chef with his amazing knife skills. When the sharks are brought to him, he first clears his station and makes sure there is enough tarp laid out so the sharks do not touch the sand. He slices off the head first, tosses it into the "toss away" pile; next he fins, two from the back and one from the tail, and tosses those into the "good" pile; finally, he slices open from the belly to remove the guts, tosses them into the "toss away" pile, and throws the body into a pile. When done, someone else brings all the headless and fin-less bodies to be weighed, and then they are put into a truck (unlike in Mozambique, shark meat is sold and eaten here and not considered worthless, though still priced much less than the fins; one buyer admits that he tricks restaurants into buying shark meat by telling them they are marlins, which is supposedly quite hard to catch and favorited by restaurants). As for the fins, those will have been rinsed and immediately taken away by the buyer.

Interestingly, there are also officials from the Fishing Ministries who patrol the markets daily and count the number of sharks caught and bought. Their job is to give out fines (to whom I'm not sure) if a boat or a truck contains over a certain number of sharks; this is the regulation aforementioned that allows a certain number of by-catch of sharks, and if the number is exceeded, a fine is levied. I've witnessed the officials walk around with a clipboard and handed out "tickets", but don't know if it's done regularly; I would not be surprised if they turn a blind eye every so often as is typical in this country. Also, I don't know how large the fine is; if it's less than what the receiver gets in return for the fins, of course it's worth the fine. So despite some effort to patrol, there are huge loopholes.

This scene would repeat itself daily; on a "good" day (for me), there were less than 20 sharks counted, and on a grim day, over 100. I'm never going to be unmoved by the scene; I still find myself wanting to shake my head when I see a boat load of sharks. However, I have to remain professional and focused; I am here to do a job and to gather the best data I can. My inside still cringes every time, and I hope that feeling never goes away.

Tags: alopias pelagicus, equilibrio azul, fish market, hammerhead, pelagic thresher, shark fin, sphyrna zygaena

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