It was billed as the biggest poaching bust in history, a huge win for conservationists. An Ecuadorean navy patrol vessel, guided by advanced radar and a small plane, bore down on a ship the length of a football field making a beeline across the Galapagos Marine Reserve – probably the most fiercely protected waters in the world. Filling the freighter’s freezers were 150 tonnes of dead sharks, most of them endangered and illegal to sell.

Only small pieces of those 6,000 carcasses were actually of much value: the fins.

Shark fins have long been a delicacy in China and among Chinese communities worldwide, the main ingredient in an expensive soup served at banquets and fancy restaurants. At peak, dried fins have sold for more per kilogram than heroin. That price, coupled with high demand from a booming Chinese economy, has created a brutally efficient industry capable of strip-mining sharks from the sea.

With fishing lines more than 120km long, commercial shark fishermen can catch hundreds of sharks at once. Tens of millions are fished from oceans every year, and some scientists have estimated that number to be more than 100 million.

“[With] the amount of sharks that we are pulling in all over the world, it seems insane that there should be any left,” says Ben Harris, director of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Panama Chapter.

The Pacific Ocean off Central America  has become ground zero in the battle to protect sharks. Even here – the richest shark waters on the planet – bio­logists fear relentless overfishing could see populations of the most sought-after species spiral into irreversible collapse and take the entire marine food chain down with them.

The big question has become which will disappear first – sharks or the shark-fin trade. “It’s a very close race right now,” says Harris, who has spent decades in speedboats chasing shark poachers out of Central American marine reserves.

A two-year investigation published by Reveal, a radio show and podcast supported by the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, has found that despite stricter protections enacted by many countries, international trade in shark products remains substantial off the Pacific coast of Central America. Reporting in port towns across five countries, from Ecuador to El Salvador, shows new laws intended to curb the slaughter of sharks appear to have had the opposite effect.

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“It really is a war,” says Jessie Treverton, former captain of the M/V John Paul DeJoria, a United States Navy patrol vessel turned Sea Shepherd eco-battleship. The vessel, its bow painted with huge shark teeth, patrolled the region’s marine reserves in early 2017, its volunteer crew tussling with poachers and sometimes cutting longlines in an effort to protect dwindling shark populations. “We’re up against governments. We’re up against cartels that are making huge amounts of money exploiting the marine ecosystems,” Treverton says.

The Ecuadorean navy’s bust last August of the freighter Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 in the Galapagos was celebrated in conservation circles. Its astonishing size alone appeared to be a major turning point in the global campaign to protect the most important apex predator in the ocean.

Reality proved far murkier – mirroring the shark-fishing industry as a whole – with the raid on the Fu Yuan Yu Leng only underlining the daunting challenge of policing rogue shark fleets on the high seas.

It turned out that the freighter crew members – still sitting in an Ecuadorean jail – were not technically poachers, or even shark fishermen. They were simply transporters, charged with picking up an illegal haul from fishing boats far out in the Pacific and depositing it in some port with soft laws on shark exports.

The crew’s testimony suggested they were unwitting smug­glers, disposable cogs in an industry that often taps human trafficking for labour, and that obscures responsibility for environmental destruction behind layers of shell companies.

For the business interests that profit most from the fin trade, the big Galapagos shark bust was a single lost battle in a war they continue to win. The cargo of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng represented a negligible portion of the global shark catch that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has reported to be worth almost US$1 billion annually.

“We haven’t done anything at all to confront the fishing,” says Costa Rican conservationist Randall Arauz.

Sharks have a very important role in marine ecosystems because they maintain equilibrium, they maintain permanent balance of biodiversity
Danny Rueda, director of eco­systems for the Galapagos Marine Reserve

At least half a dozen shark species are critically endangered around the world, and many more in specific regions. Globally, a quarter of shark and ray species are considered threatened. Though numbers vary between conservation agencies and governmental bodies, scientists agree that if nothing changes, some species may go extinct in our lifetimes.

Many protections have been implemented by countries in the Americas with Pacific coastline to try to slow the decline. All have banned “shark finning” – the practice of chopping fins off live sharks and throwing bodies back to drown. Globally, 182 countries – including China – and the European Union have signed agreements that prevent the export of certain species. And an increasing number of countries are declaring “no-take” marine reserves, including Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica.

Yet an analysis of United Nations trade data suggests exports of shark products from Central America have nearly doubled since 2012. That indicates that despite regulations, there is more shark fishing in the American Pacific, not less. “They always find the loopholes,” Arauz says. National and international laws are full of inconsistencies, allowing shark-fishing operations to slip through the cracks.

While “finning” is illegal, for example, the fins themselves are still legal across most of the world, as long as the entire shark body is brought to land with fins attached. The fins, a total of eight on most species, can then be removed at port and as long as they are not from an internationally regulated endangered species, can be exported.

“Banning shark finning is a step in the right direction, but it’s not going to give us what we need, which is a decrease in shark mortality,” says Arauz.

Of all Central American countries on the Pacific, only Ecuador has banned shark fishing outright, allowing only “by-catch”, sharks accidentally caught on a longline targeting other species. But Ecuador has not put a cap on how much by-catch can be kept, so fishermen land as many sharks as they want and in practice, little has changed.

International trade in shark products has become the quintessential grey market, one where lack of regulation and enforcement see legal and illegal products blend into an impossible-to-separate quagmire.

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Some protec­tive measures, such as stricter port inspections, have pushed the behemoths of shark fishing – industrial fleets with global reach – farther out to sea. They come into port rarely, and usually to remote corners of the globe with little scrutiny of what is being caught (possibly protected endangered species) and where (possibly marine reserves).

The result: operations with the worst reputations have become harder to track and monitor, let alone potentially prosecute for poaching violations.

The vast majority of shark fishing happens in international waters, where endangered status does not protect a shark from being fished. And even where there are laws, there’s usually no one to enforce them.

On the high seas, a ship is subject to the laws of the nation whose flag it flies. Often, fishing companies will choose to flag their vessel in a country far from the waters where they fish, ensuring little to no oversight of their operation. That flag turns a vessel into sovereign territory in international waters, so authorities from any other nation that board the vessel are effectively invading another country – not something most coastguards or marine patrols are keen to do.

That leaves most shark protection laws to be applied at the port of call, with the host nation working with the flag state.

The Fu Yuan Yu Leng was registered in China. Court records show the captain said the official course was for Peru, a nation with notoriously weak enforcement at its ports. But it could have been bound to any number of unregulated ports, anywhere from Africa to Asia. It would have got away with the illegal load, too, had it not crossed into the waters of a marine reserve closely monitored on radar by park rangers.

“Instead of having to land now in these Central American countries, [transpacific fishing vessels] can easily just turn around and take their products back to Asia,” Arauz says. “Nobody knows, ever, what they caught.”

One Artful Dodger of the industry is a Central American fleet owned by the Wang Group, a network of shell companies operated by three Taiwanese brothers in Costa Rica. Despite its eco-friendly reputation, Costa Rica has long been consider­ed the capital of the regional shark trade, and exports up to half a million fins each year, according to government data.

When Arauz and other environmentalists pressed the government to tighten the screws – inspiring new laws that effectively banned the Wang Group’s international vessels, which landed up to 60,000 sharks a year – the fleet simply stopped bringing its catch to Costa Rica.

“They’d have to follow the law, and they said, ‘Screw this,’” says Arauz. “Now, they go to El Salvador and Guatemala. Over there, they can land pretty freely.”

The Wang Group now ships its sharks out of El Salvador. Almost 7 per cent of the regional shark trade shifted to El Salvador at the same time.

“In El Salvador, the No 1 problem is violence, and the No 2 and 3,” says Salvadoran conservationist Luis “Fox” Aguilar. He says local activists just do not know about the international fleets, so he doubts anyone regulates them.

Legally, that responsibility – making sure a vessel adheres to maritime law – should also fall on Belize, the flag country used by Wang vessels, which advertises its ship registry as “the friendly flag of quality”. Belize employs deputy registrars to be its eyes and ears at ports around the world.

It’s just too many dead sharks. The only thing that’s going to save the sharks nowadays is to stop killing them
Costa Rican conservationist Randall Arauz

In Costa Rica, that became a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. There, the local registrar owned her own commer­cial shark fishing operation. In 2017, she was convicted of felony shark finning and was sentenced to serve six months house arrest. She had previously been charged with human trafficking, though those charges were dropped on a technicality.

The tougher rules in countries such as Costa Rica have not curbed rampant overfishing in the region, but they have crippled local fishermen, those who are most motivated to play by the rules and easiest to monitor. People whose income depends on sharks tend to want shark populations to remain healthy.

“There is a small group of local shark fishermen that wants to do things right. I consider myself part of them,” says Costa Rican Sergio Soto Peña. “Everyone has their passion and my passion is fishing. I live and die by it.”

Like most fishermen, his forearms bear large scars from shark hooks that pierced his skin as he baited longlines in rough seas.

Though disliked by activists such as Arauz, Soto Peña’s three-vessel operation is tiny compared with international fleets. Many Costa Rican fishermen say they would support regulation such as catch limits. But Costa Rica has forgone quotas in favour of banning exports of certain species.

Local fleets are forced to throw back a big chunk of a catch because some sharks are illegal to export and therefore worthless. The throwbacks include hammerheads and other protected sharks – even if the shark is already dead.

Soto Peña argues that bans on certain species have caused many family shark-fishing operations to close, but says the extreme policies do not actually save sharks. “We have to throw back all of that, and the [international] boats kill everything and keep it all,” he says, bothered by the waste.

Soto Peña says it is the transpacific longliners that cause the most damage, both environmentally and socially. Some of the largest international shark-fishing vessels use crews of vulnerable migrants with no local connections. The vessels stay at sea for years at a time, invisible to radar, restocking and fuelling from mother ships and transferring their catches – both legal and illegal – to steamers like the one captured in the Galapagos. And the men on board are just as disposable as the crew serving time for environmental crimes in Ecuador.

“I don’t really think about [the environmental impact],” says Thong Cao, a Vietnamese migrant fisherman who says he just does what he is told. He and the dozens of others on his fleet were deemed “probably trafficked” by a UN migration agency. Cao says that when he signed up for the job with a labour agency in Vietnam, he did not know he was coming to Central America to fish sharks or that he would be at sea for more than a year at a time, transferring the carcasses to other vessels to bring to port in El Salvador.

The local boats and international rogues sometimes literally go into battle at sea. Crews of the larger transpacific vessels have cut Soto Peña’s longlines in international waters, he says, rammed his boat, and generally tried to drive natives from the best fishing grounds.

“We have regulations in Costa Rica, but who regulates those people?” he asks. The answer is almost always no one.

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Over the four-plus decades  since the film Jaws painted sharks as monsters, scientists and conservation groups have worked hard to change public percep­tion. By that measure, the international shark-conservation campaign has been a profound public-relations success. Conservation groups have even noted a decline in Asian demand for fins, as awareness campaigns have changed the dietary choices of millennials. The price of fins has levelled off to about US$200 a kilogram, way down from its peak. And shark fin soup has been banned at state banquets in China.

The Discovery Channel’s wildly popular “Shark Week” reflects strong public interest in shark ecology worldwide. Show after show still plays off the scary power of the ocean-going predators, but most also stress the critical role of sharks in the marine ecosystem.

In the US, 12 states and three territories have banned posses­sion of fins altogether, with some of the strictest shark laws in the world. The state of Florida, however, is not one of them and now ranks as the largest importer of shark fins in the country. And shark fins from Central America often pass through Florida’s Miami International Airport (MIA) on their way to Hong Kong, according to the private trade data aggregator site ImportGenius.

Between 2015 and the middle of 2017, Costa Rican companies alone moved more than 80,000kg of dried shark fins through MIA on their way to Asia using two small logistics companies. Those fins were valued at almost US$2.5 million.

It’s nearly impossible to know if any of the shark fins flown through MIA were from endangered species, but a 2017 analy­sis of shark-fin clippings imported to Hong Kong suggests that a third of the fins may come from internationally protected species. Arauz and his team have documented several exports of hammerhead fins from Costa Rica, likely bound for the US on their way to Asia, in breach of international treaties.

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In March, Senator Marco Rubio, along with Representative Daniel Webster, two Republicans from Florida, and California Democratic Representative Ted Lieu introduced the Sustain­able Shark Fisheries and Trade Act. The bill would require any country wishing to export shark products to the US to demon­strate that the sharks were harvested legally, sustainably and landed at a port with proper enforcement mechanisms, certi­fied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those in favour say the bill could coax the international fleets’ return to properly regulated ports.

The bill has been praised by fishermen and pragmatic conservationists, who say a well-regulated, sustainable fishery is more effective than bans. But many others feel the time for compromise with the fishing industry has long passed.

“It’s just too many dead sharks,” says Arauz. “The only thing that’s going to save the sharks nowadays is to stop killing them.”

By the most important measure, shark protections con­ti­nue to fall short. Many populations are plummeting, with more species becoming threatened every year.

Hammerheads, known to stay close to shore, were some of the first to fall victim to overfishing and be listed as endanger­ed. As the fisheries have moved farther out to sea, migratory, open-ocean sharks like the silky and thresher have been targeted, and found their way onto lists of species threatened with extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the most-cited scientific authority, ties the threatened status of at least a dozen shark species directly to overfishing.

Trade in silky and thresher products was limited in 2016 by international convention, but populations remain in steep decline. Experts say the ocean as we know it cannot exist without sharks. “We’d have a much less efficient ecosystem,” says marine biologist Jon Witman, of Brown University, Rhode Island, in the US, who conducts research in the Galapagos. Essentially, he says, without sharks, the marine food chain would suffer a “behavioural trophic cascade”.

For example, he says, in Australia, the presence of tiger sharks near shore keeps manatees from basking in the shallow water and overeating sea grass. Sea grass is an important nursery for a wide array of marine life, and its overconsump­tion could threaten species whose reproductive cycles depend on it.

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Although the specifics of species interaction in a complex ecosystem is still a field of active study, scientists agree that healthy oceans depend on a healthy population of sharks.

“Sharks have a very important role in marine ecosystems because they maintain equilibrium, they maintain permanent balance of biodiversity,” says Danny Rueda, director of eco­systems for the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Rueda adds that even with the best regulations, shark populations will take decades to recover due to their relatively slow maturation rate. However, Witman and Rueda both note that since implementing a strict ban on shark fishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, populations appear to be in recovery within the protected areas.

“It’s very likely that the sharks we are seeing here is some­thing that 15 years ago you wouldn’t have seen,” says Rueda. “There has been an increase in control, a strengthening of the park so that there isn’t illegal shark fishing.”

This investigation was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, in Washington, DC, and New York’s Columbia Journalism School. Miami Herald/Tribune Content Agency