Shark identification, with a little help from our friends

Last week we busted a Taiwanese longliner fishing illegally and the case sent shock waves around the region and the tuna industry. Meanwhile, here on the Rainbow Warrior we struggled with the amount of evidence we had uncovered...

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Shark identification, with a little help from our friends

Last week in the Pacific high seas, we busted a Taiwanese longliner fishing illegally. The case sent shock waves around the region and the tuna industry. Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency agreed to meet with our colleagues in Taiwan after they protested outside their office. The Government of Nauru boldly banned transshipment in their waters, and the issue will be discussed at a Pacific tuna meeting this week, where Pacific Island countries and other fishing powers discuss fisheries rules and how they are being followed (or not, as the case may be).

Meanwhile, here on the Rainbow Warrior we struggled with the amount of evidence we had uncovered from the vessel. In addition to the fact that it wasn’t on the regional Record of Fishing Vessels (a database of vessels authorised to fish in these waters) at the time we went aboard, there was a lot more sketchy stuff going on. The team spotted that the vessel’s log book did not ring true, considering the time it had been fishing at sea, and further investigation confirmed that the log didn’t match up with the catch in the holds. The captain admitted transshipping some of his catch to another fishing boat, and the big moment came when we uncovered three sacks of shark fins from at least 42 sharks in the freezer holds.

The problem was, with only three blue sharks recorded in the catch log and nine frozen shark bodies in the hold, trying to determine what species the hundreds of fins belonged to was a nigh-on impossible task. So we called on our friends for help. We posted images online of the various shark fins, taken by conservation investigative photographer Paul Hilton, and asked shark experts we knew to help with their identification.

Sure enough, help started rolling in by email and Facebook. Shark morphology experts Debra Abercrombie and Lindsay Marshall identified two of the pectoral fins and many of the tail fins as belonging to silky sharks. Silky sharks have suffered from a rapid population decline in recent years due to high catches on longline hooks, and they are the type of shark most often attracted by Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), a fish magnet used by purse seine fishing ships.

Two silky shark Carcharhinus falciformis pectoral fins (on the left) and two blue shark Prionace glauca pectoral fins (on the right) from aboard the Shuen De Ching No. 888, identified by shark morphology experts Debra Abercrombie and Lindsay Marshall
Two silky shark Carcharhinus falciformis pectoral fins (on the left) and two blue shark Prionace glauca pectoral fins (on the right) from aboard the Shuen De Ching No. 888, identified by shark morphology experts Debra Abercrombie and Lindsay Marshall

Because of plummeting numbers, silky sharks have been specially protected by the Pacific Tuna Commission (WCPFC) with a rule that requires fishers to release any silky sharks caught on their lines or in their nets. A similar rule applies to oceanic whitetip, another shark species in serious trouble.

We also heard from Professor Colin Simpfendorfer of James Cook University in Australia, who used a new app from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called ISharkFin to identify an endangered scalloped hammerhead among the dorsal fins we photographed. Another shark scientist Gabriel Vianna (who sailed with Greenpeace as diver and shark expert in our 2009 expedition in the Pacific) identified a tail that was probably from a mako shark. 

Analysis of dorsal fins from aboard the Shuen De Ching No. 888 using the United Nations FAO ISharkFin app. The larger dorsal fin was identified by Professor Colin Simpfendorfer as a scalloped hammerhead, Sphyrna lewini. The species is endangered, and its trade is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Analysis of dorsal fins from aboard the Shuen De Ching No. 888 using the United Nations FAO ISharkFin app. The larger dorsal fin was identified by Professor Colin Simpfendorfer as a scalloped hammerhead, Sphyrna lewini. The species is endangered, and its trade is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

How is this happening?

The problem is, shark finning is weakly regulated by the WCPFC due to opposition from the big fishing powers in the region. Rather than adopting international best practice and requiring all sharks to be landed with their fins naturally attached (something Pacific Island countries have been pushing for), the Commission requires that no more than 5% of the total shark weight can be fins – they can still be hacked off the bodies and stored separately, even transshipped to another vessel, which makes it extremely difficult to identify species from the fins only, or to tell if the rules have been followed.

Thanks to our shark experts around the world, we can say that Shuen De Ching No. 888 was illegally retaining silky sharks, and catching scalloped hammerhead and mako sharks without reporting these species in its logbook. 

The captain covered his tracks by getting rid of the shark bodies and only recording blue sharks in the catch log, making identification unlikely. If the ship hadn’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and spotted by the Rainbow Warrior, they would have gotten away with this shark plunder. Luckily we found them, and retaining silky sharks will be added to the list of illegalities we submit in our report about the vessel.

Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency is now responsible for investigating and prosecuting the vessel. It has confirmed that a patrol boat inspected the ship and found evidence of shark finning and illegal transshipment, and is escorting Shuen De Ching No. 888 back to Taiwan. Worryingly, the Fisheries Agency press release says that their inspection found only 5 sharks with fins tied to the bodies, one pectoral fin, one dorsal fin, four caudal fins and 104 anal fins. That’s far fewer shark fins than we documented on 9 September, making our evidence and species identification critical.

Last week we noticed the Shuen De Ching No. 888 had stopped transmitting its position. This “black hole” in the vessel’s position report could have allowed them to transship shark fins to another vessel, which could account for the discrepancy between our evidence and what the Fisheries Agency patrol boat found.

Needless to say, we’ve already added the ship to the Greenpeace pirate fishing blacklist and will be presenting the full case to the Technical and Compliance Committee this week.

But what’s needed to fix this problem for good?

First of all, the WCPFC shark rules need to be strengthened in line with the UN International Plan of Action on Sharks, so all sharks are either released or kept with their fins naturally attached.

Secondly, specific fishing methods that target sharks must be banned outright. For longliners, the methods are wire leaders (which prevent sharks from biting through the line and releasing themselves) and setting special shark lines beneath buoys to attract curious passing sharks. For purse seiners, it’s fish aggregating devices that attract sharks as well as tuna and other species.

Next, transshipment at sea must be banned, so shark catches are prevented from being separated (for other good reasons why transshipment should be banned, check out Kate’s blog.)

Finally, more shark species including silky and porbeagle sharks should be added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to tightly regulate any trade and help restore their populations to safe levels.

Millions of sharks are killed in tuna fisheries each year. If these steps were taken, that number could be dramatically reduced – and I think that’s something that shark experts and ocean lovers alike would be very happy to see.

-- Karli