When Costa Rican customs officials unloaded 332 shark carcasses from the ship’s hold, they didn't look like sharks anymore. With the flesh carved away and the fins clinging to spines by narrow strips of skin, the pile of scraps resembled macabre marionettes more than anything that ever swam in the sea.
The 2011 seizure quickly became one of Costa Rica’s most high-profile cases of shark finning, a destructive and unsustainable fishing practice common in the nation’s oceans. By Costa Rican law, fins must be “naturally attached” to a shark’s body for legal export or sale. The gruesome “spining” technique attempted to exploit a legal loophole. After filing charges against the owner of the ship’s cargo, Kathy Tseng — a Taiwanese-Costa Rican national with ties to several large seafood companies — prosecutors expected to make an example of spining once and for all.
But last month, a judge absolved Tseng of all crimes and ordered the state to pay more than $6,500 in compensation for the seized fins. The decision not only potentially opens the door for legalized spining but might also prompt a resurgence in criminal shark finning, which diminished following the passage of seemingly strict legislation.
Designed to free up room in a ship’s hull, shark finning involves slicing off a shark’s cartilaginous fins, which can be sold for as much as $650 per kilogram, and throwing its body overboard. The still-breathing shark will often float underwater, unable to swim until it bleeds or starves to death or is eaten by other sharks.
Finning has grown in recent decades to meet the demand for shark fin soup — a delicacy in Asia — and is decimating shark populations around the world.
Costa Rica has been at the center of the finning war from the beginning. Conservation groups estimate that the relative abundance of sharks in Costa Rican waters declined by 60 percent between 1991 and 2001. The country’s protected Cocos Island — famous among divers for its shark spotting — has lost more than 70 percent of some hammerhead species to finning and overfishing. Though the practice has been illegal since 2005, the government estimates that between 350,000 and 400,000 sharks were killed in Costa Rican waters for their fins in 2011.
A study published last year in the journal Marine Policy estimated that between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed each year by commercial fishing.
‘By not outright declaring it illegal, we worry that other judges could interpret spining as natural attachment in the future.’
Chinese, Taiwanese, and Indonesian nationals began the shark fin trade in Costa Rica in the mid-1980s. When finning became illegal, they built private docks where they could unload their cargo in secret. Typically secured with armed guards and barbed wire, the private docks operated for years as criminal compounds for the illicit fin trade.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was held at gunpoint while investigating such a hideout with a film crew in 2011. Members of a criminal shark-finning gang also shot at filmmaker Rob Stewart while he was making the documentary Sharkwater.
“These gangs all have significant amounts of money behind them,” Edwin Cantillo Espinoza, the chief legal officer for the Costa Rican Coast Guard, told VICE News. “They all use the best technology, they have money for the best lawyers, they never use national boats, and they’re all from Asia.”
Taiwanese gangs and industrial fishing interests successfully kept regulations off the books or unenforced for years using their influence over Costa Rica’s fishing regulation body, Incopesca.
Widely considered one of the country’s most corrupt agencies, Incopesca officials have been accused multiple times of turning a blind eye to blatant poaching. In 2012, its vice president was dismissed after serving as a defense attorney for numerous violators of the organization’s own regulations. Incopesca’s president is currently under investigation for allegedly authorizing the docking of several ships accused of shark finning.
“Whenever these laws are being drafted, lawmakers are always trying to balance various interests,” Ana María Lobo, a legal expert for the Costa Rican conservation group MarViva, told VICE News. “No one knows for sure, but sometimes it seems like these loopholes are left open on purpose.”
In 2010, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla barred foreign fishing ships from unloading at private docks, dealing a huge blow to these criminal operations. Two years later, she signed a blanket ban against shark finning that was meant to strengthen existing statutes. The import and export of shark fins was also prohibited.
“After that, we saw a big decline in the amount of boats we were catching,” Miguel Madrigal, a Costa Rican Coast Guard commander, told VICE News. “We believe that a lot of the operations shut down.”
Now, conservationists worry that the judge’s reasoning in Tseng’s absolution might bring them back. For finning opponents, the decision creates two problems. The first deals with Tseng’s use of the spining technique, which had never before been subject to prosecution. Fins attached to the spine by skin landed in a gray area, which the judge did not clarify.
“By not outright declaring it illegal, we worry that other judges could interpret spining as natural attachment in the future,” Tatiana Chaves, a prosecutor in Tseng’s case, told VICE News.
But another loophole in the case most concerns the anti-finning camp, and could make it nearly impossible to prosecute violators in the future. Before her ship docked, Tseng called Incopesca to ask what would happen if she didn’t unload all of her cargo. Costa Rica’s anti-finning law only punishes the person who “orders, permits, or authorizes the unloading of shark fins for commercial purposes.”
Tseng knew the law’s wording and claimed she had no interest in unpacking or selling the fins. After docking, she wanted the spined sharks to stay on the boat.
The judge determined that the prosecutor’s office ordered that the fins be unloaded after learning that they were onboard. Therefore, Tseng hadn’t violated the law.
“She obviously was very careful with everything she said regarding the fins, and this worries us a great deal,” Lobo said. “Anyone with knowledge of the laws can exploit this loophole now.”
The ruling also calls into question fin seizures at sea. Just a week before the judge’s decision, the Costa Rican Coast Guard arrested a boat captain whose ship was carrying 153 shark fins. The captain had not yet docked or unloaded his cargo.
“We have advanced so much in how we police these activities,” President Chinchilla told VICE News, “but none of it matters if we cannot make the spirit of our laws clear to our judges and prosecutors.”
The prosecution will appeal the judge’s decision within the month. However, the same permissive reasoning could be applied again without a clarification or a change in the law, and conservationists worry that a fix might not come fast enough.
“We can expect to see all of these Taiwanese ships back on shores with this absolution,” said Randall Arauz, the president of PRETOMA, the most outspoken anti-finning group in Costa Rica. “It just goes to show that the government will still bend over for the Taiwanese mafia.”
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Photos via Interpol