'Finning' threatens Galapagos sharks Tuesday, October 21, 2003 Posted: 10:47 AM EDT (1447 GMT) http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/science/10/21/galapagos.sharks.reut/index.html GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador (Reuters) -- They may not be cute like the sea lions that waddle on sandy beaches or the once-endangered giant tortoises featured in campaigns to conserve Ecuador's exotic Galapagos Islands. But sharks, which draw tourists and scuba divers, are increasingly a cause celebre in Galapagos. Environmentalists and the tourism industry are lobbying for more protection for sharks from fishermen who see a lucrative business in exporting their prized fins. Shark fishing is illegal in Galapagos. But that doesn't stop small motorboats from cruising the islands' Pacific Ocean waters at night to hunt the giant fish, whose fins command top dollar in Asia where they are eaten in a costly soup. Supporters want tougher enforcement, education efforts, alternative sources of income for fishermen and greater smuggling controls. Conservationists fear shark numbers in the marine reserve surrounding the islands could be depleted by the fatal practice known as "finning" in which the shark fins are cut off and the body tossed back in the water to hide the evidence. Galapagos National Park authorities have confiscated more than 5,000 fins so far this year alone. "If this data is just a minimum, we could be facing a serious situation," said Patricia Zarate, a marine biologist at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island who has studied sharks in the islands. "To me, the number of sharks they're pulling out right now puts the archipelago on alert." Environmental groups worry diminishing shark populations could disrupt the delicate balance in the archipelago, 625 miles west of the mainland, especially since the giant fish can take decades to reproduce. Conservationists say about 100 million sharks are caught every year worldwide, mostly just for their fins. The peculiar fauna in Galapagos, where no human beings settled until the 19th century, have made the islands famous around the world and inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. Risky business Galapagos has just a handful of patrol boats to prevent foreign ships from invading the reserve to fin hammerhead and whale sharks, which abound in its carefully conserved waters and lure millions of tourism dollars each year. The park has a tough time controlling local fishermen as well, who say they can make better money by finning sharks than labor-intensive tuna fishing that doesn't bring home enough cash for them to feed their families. Cracking his knuckles and shifting his feet on a shabby carpet in his home in Santa Cruz, one portly Galapagos fisherman admits he can make a handsome profit by selling fins on Ecuador's mainland once he sneaks them past sniffing dogs at port in sacks of coffee or tanks for fuel. Even so, the 38-year-old said he held back this year over fear of getting caught. "It's not so risky for the fisherman because he makes his catch and sells it, but it's risky for the salesman," he said, on condition of anonymity. Some fishermen reel in dead sharks as bycatch and say it would be silly to turn down a sale. They say a pound of fins sells for $30 in Galapagos and double on the mainland. Others justify heading out to fin, claiming decades of industrial fishing in the islands -- before it was prohibited in 1998 -- didn't wipe sharks out. Diminishing schools But avid scuba divers say the islands' turquoise waters, which housed hundreds of sharks a decade ago, aren't the same. And many tourism operators who depend on quality diving with hammerhead sharks swimming peacefully overhead for business, are pushing for tighter controls to ensure their main undersea attraction remains intact. "Fifteen years ago there were huge schools of hammerheads in this one area. You could talk about 100 or 200 or 300. Now, if you see 20 or 30, you're very lucky," said Mathias Espinosa, who has a diving business catering to tourists in Santa Cruz. Galapagos generates about a third of Ecuador's $430 million-a-year tourism business, according to a report by Quito-based conservation group Fundacion Natura. Environmentalists admit it's tough to create a culture of conservation overnight in Galapagos, where fishermen lived for decades with few rules before a new law was passed in 1998 aimed at protecting the archipelago. Part of the problem is that while shark fishing is illegal in Galapagos, fins are sold freely on the mainland. And so long as there's demand in Asia for shark-fin soup -- which can sell for $100 a bowl -- experts say smuggling will persist. "The problem is while it's banned in Galapagos, it's allowed on the coast," said Mario Piu, head of marine resources for Galapagos National Park. "People buy and sell sharks on the mainland with papers that don't show where they came from."