The Mexico Shark Fishing Moratorium Fiasco

Great white shark. Photo by Terry Goss, copyri...

White shark near Mexico's Isla Guadalupe.

In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time around shark fishermen and observing the slaughter of sharks in Baja California Sur. At that time, fishermen had moved over from  the Sea of Cortez where shark populations had collapsed, to focus on an intensive long-line and gill net fishery along the Pacific, concentrating on the offshore fishing grounds of Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio Lagoon, the Vizcaino Peninsula and finally the area north of Guerrero Negro (Los Cirios Coast). At that time rays were also fished intensively due to to the collapse of other fisheries.

Shark dump near La Bocana in BCS, Mexico.

Most of the shark meat and ray meat (used to make machaca) were considered second or third-class fish, which meant a lower price. For sharks obviously it was the trade in fins that drove fishermen to go out 20-60 miles from shore to set long-lines or gill nets. At that time I had not realized that this type of fishing activity was being carried out all over the world and was causing the collapse of shark populations.

I had not also realized the extent to which the obsession with shark fin soup in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China was driving the extinction of the ocean’s most feared, beautiful and interesting animals.

Shark fin soup

Shark fin soup.

WiLDCOAST has been working with Defenders of Wildlife-Mexico and Iemanya Oceanica to curtail the excessive shark fishery in Mexico and to educate the general public through media campaigns of the impact the shark fishery was having on Mexico’s ocean health.

When sharks unfortunately attacked and killed two surfers a few years ago just north of Zihuatanejo (and attacked another surfer who survived) we carried out a successful effort to stop a government sanctioned revenge shark slaughter.

We also worked with organizations like WildAid, Oceana, NRDC, Ocean Conservancy and Heal the Bay to advocate for the ban on the sale of shark fins in California. Our wrestling superhero El Hijo del Santo has been a tireless advocate for sharks and reached more than 30 million people through appearances on news and talk shows on the Telemundo networks to call for the California ban on shark fins.

Hammerhead in the La Bocana shark dump. In some areas, schools of hammerheads are caught in gill nets that also annually drown thousands of loggerhead sea turtles.

Since then we have attempted to work to have Mexico include endangered hammerheads on the CITES list. That effort was squashed by the Mexican government.

So last week, conservationists were surprised and happy to learn that Mexico had proposed a moratorium on fishing all species of sharks and rays. And from this story that appeared on the New York Times blog it seemed very clear that the moratorium would be real:

Mexico announced here plans yesterday to ban shark and stingray fishing starting next year, creating what would be the largest initiative by one nation to protect shark species.

The temporary moratorium is part of a burgeoning global movement against the trade of shark fins used as an ingredient in an Asian delicacy. Mexican authorities said they were inspired by the “shark sanctuary” declared two years ago by Pacific nation of Palau.

“Mexico wishes to share with the international community our intention to declare next year a moratorium on shark and stingray fishing,” said Yanerit Morgan, Mexico’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations on the side of a General Assembly meeting yesterday.

Joined by leaders of a small-island nations and other Latin American states, Morgan said the fishing ban would encompass Mexico’s territorial seas and expansive exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

The goal, she said, was to protect “pregnant female specimen and newborns of the main shark and stingray species.”

Morgan at the Mexican U.N. mission said her country’s decision to establish a moratorium is strictly a domestic initiative and not part of a regional North American or Latin American conservation effort.

“Our decision is a national policy,” Morgan said. “We hope that others can join us.”

Seemed pretty clear. Except it wasn’t. According to my inside sources in the Mexican government there was no plan to have a moratorium. The statement at the U.N. was a “mistake.” One source informed me that here was another proposal for a 3-month moratorium that they were confused about. Another source informed me that the proposal was actually real, but was only a foil in an attempt to pressure Mexican fishery officials (rabidly anti-conservation) to actually enact the 3-month moratorium.

Both sources assured me that a statement from the Mexican government clarifying the situation would be forthcoming.

It has been more than a week and no statement has been issued clarifying anything. Leading shark conservationists in the U.S. I spoke with continue to believe that Mexico is serious about conserving shark populations and the moratorium.

And this morning the New York Times, in an editorial, “A Growing Movement to Save Sharks”, lauded Mexico for its shark  and ray conservation initiative:

Last month, Mexico announced that it would ban shark and stingray fishing beginning next year. This would affect Mexico’s exclusive fishing zones in the Pacific Ocean and in the Gulf of Mexico. Several island nations — Micronesia, the Maldives, Palau, and the Marshall Islands — have already created shark sanctuaries. There is hope that Honduras and Colombia will follow suit, perhaps creating a protective corridor reaching to the Galapagos Islands.

So is the shark moratorium truth of fiction?

These types of policy “wars” in Mexico over proposals used to be carried out domestically in the state-run media. Different newspapers would publish policy proposals by competing factions in a government agency (the Mexican government under the PRI essentially bankrolled the press).

You would always know an article was a political message because it would appear without a byline with a very forceful and badly written statement about a very obscure policy. Another newspaper would carry the same type of article from a competing faction of technocrats calling for a different obscure policy.

Then the issue would vanish from the public spotlight.

What is unfortunate is that in the past, Mexico used to pass far-reaching conservation initiatives because it was worth the positive international media exposure it received–and then those plans would be implemented (to some degree).

Now let’s hope that the Calderon administration is not cynical enough to have carried out a policy war internationally and use the international press to argue over competing proposals–one of which-the year-long moratorium–the government never intended to ever happen.

That would be a shame for sharks and for ocean health.

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Comments

  1. Jessica Hoyt says:

    Just yesterday, sharks were killed off of Playa del Carmen. I have a picture of the sandy sharks being loaded onto the truck. Apparently the government approved these killings.

  2. Hi Jessica;

    Thanks for your comment. The harvest of many species of sharks in Mexico is legal. Can you please send me the image to info@wildcoast.net and we can verify if the species on the truck are legally fished.

    Thanks!

  3. Serge,
    Thanks for writing this article. I’m working on a 2011 news round-up for my blog, http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/lmonroe/ and just spent 45 minutes reading UN General Assembly notes trying to verify the NYTimes story from 9/23. Your blog clarifies the unfortunate reason I was not able to track down the statement!
    Best,
    Leila

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