Saving Sharks on the Hammerhead Highway

Picture above: E/V Viking.

Alarming evidence exists that illegal fishing has increased alongside and inside marine reserves from California to the Galapagos during the COVID crisis. These marine protected zones prohibit commercial, and in many cases recreational fishing and take of marine wildlife. However, a lack of eco-tourism and patrols has lead to increased fishing in the Northeast Pacific- particularly off Central America.

Global Fin Print
Lower left: Chinese flagged longliner trans-shipping fish, Right: Ship data fishing between Galapagos and Central America. Image Global Fin Print

Since June 2020, over 300 Chinese fishing vessels have been observed fishing the edge of the Galapagos Exclusive Economic Zone, one of the richest and most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, This fleet has been fishing in international waters since 2017, but a greater number has been recorded fishing the area around the Galapagos and in the migratory pathway of hammerheads and sea turtles in 2020.

Using satellite technology and ship information system required under international agreement, Global Fish Watch has followed vessels fishing along the edges and encroaching inside the Galapagos killing tuna, but also sharks and sea turtles. There is also evidence that the smaller vessels are transferring fish to a larger mother ship (called trans-shipment) to allow them to fish to continue fishing for extended periods of time. Some of these vessels turn off their transponders providing location information, “going dark” and believed to be fishing inside the protected zones.

According to Oceana, nearly 300 Chinese vessels accounted for 99% of visible fishing just outside the archipelago’s waters between 13 July and 13 August this year.

This vast fishing armada tracked by Global Fishing Watch just off the Galápagos Islands logged 73,000 hours of fishing in just one month. These vessels harvested thousands of tons of squid and other fish, as longliners harvested thousands of sharks and tons of tuna near this World Heritage Area and national marine reserve.

Additional evidence indicates fishing is occurring inside the Cocos Island Marine reserve off Costa Rica, and other concerns have been voiced among dive tour operators in Mexico. Taking advantage of the lack of ecotourism and patrols, these vessels are targeting sharks and other large species in marine reserves and along the migratory pathway shared by other species such as marine mammals and sea turtles.

In May 2020, 26 tons of shark fins, belonging to 38,500 specimens, were seized in Hong Kong, China. The two containers had arrived from Ecuador.

This fall, Shark Stewards joins Ocean Explorer LLC on an expedition diving remote Pacific marine reserves areas to expose and document Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in and around marine protected areas. Follow us live and get updates on Instagram.

In September, Peruvian Police announced the seizure of eight tons of hammerhead and Thresher shark meat, in a border city located 30 kilometers from Ecuador. According to the authorities, the animals came from Ecuadorian territory.

This region of high abundance and species richness includes the waters, coasts and islands off the shores of Central and South America. We will document sharks and fishing near and in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Cocos Island, Malpelo Island, and Coiba National Park, Galapagos Islands and Marine Reserve.

Cocos

Voyage to Protect the Hammerhead Highway

This media and film adventure is supporting Mission Blue and Turtle Island Restoration Network, Migramar and other partners to create one of the world’s first international marine protected areas connecting the UNESCO biosphere reserves of three countries. This region also known as the Cocos- Galapagos Swimway was also recently adopted by Mission Blue as a Hope Spot.

A letter from local and international non-profits urges Costa Rica and Ecuador to act quickly to create the Cocos-Galapagos Swim way, a 240,000 square-kilometer underwater highway that connects the National Parks of two sovereign nations: Costa Rica’s Cocos Island National Park with Ecuador’s Galapagos Marine Reserve. Both island groups are federal marine protected areas and are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also connected to this sea mount system is Colombia’s Malpelo Island, a deep pinnacle that attracts hundreds of hammerhead sharks.

Fishing boats, many owned by Chinese companies, cluster just outside Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone surrounding the protected Galápagos Islands, as seen on the vessel-tracking platform Global Fishing Watch. The bright dots represent vessels present during August, 2020. The gathering, while legal, has raised concern because of a 2017 incident in which the Ecuadorean navy caught a Chinese vessel carrying a large catch of sharks, including protected species, inside the Galápagos marine reserve. Image courtesy of Global Fishing Watch.

Scientific research in the Eastern Pacific conducted by a network of organizations known as MigraMar revealed endangered and threatened marine species like whale sharks, green sea turtles, leatherback sea turtles, silky sharks, and scalloped hammerhead sharks use this swimway to migrate between the marine reserves. When these species leave the protected areas, however, they enter the open ocean where they are at grave risk to industrial fishing.

Beginning in October, our team has departed from San Francisco, heading down the coast to visit select marine protected areas from California to the Panama Canal, with focus on the migratory known as the Hammerhead Highway.

Follow our voyage from California to Panama live and on Instagram and Facebook and posts on our Field Notes column with National Geographic to learn more.

This expedition is self funded. Can you support the cause?