Shark finning again comes to center stage here

U.S. official inspects dried shark fins in an unrelated case. One source estimates that U.S. commercial fishermen killed 145 million sharks over two years. Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Conservationists say that the country’s fishing institute is allowing foreign ships to bypass required inspections when they come into port.

The situation involves ships that are in the shark-finning trade, a controversial occupation.

At the same time, a popular television chef reported that he was threatened and doused with fuel when he and camera operators visited Costa Rica and tried to learn more about shark finning. The chef is Gordon Ramsay, the main figure in the show “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Local environmentalists and conservationists have been following shark finning developments for years. Costa Rican law says that foreign fishing vessels are supposed to offload at a public dock, in part so their cargo and be inspected.

The latest case involves ships from a Taiwanese company based in Puntarenas. Environmentalists, such as Randall Arauz of the Programa de Restauración de Tortugas Marinas, are miffed. They thought the docking problem was solved when the Instituto Costarricense de Pesca y Acuicultura and the Ministerio de Agricultura y Gandería said that by Dec. 1 every commercial fishing boat would have to unload its catch at the public docks in Barrio El Carmen, Puntarenas.

In mid-December the organization reported that two Belize-registered boats, the Yu Long 35 and the Hung Chi Fu 27 were unloading some 55 tons of shark at the private Mariscos Wang facility. They released photos.

After spending a week at the private docks, the boats moved to the public dock for inspection. The situation is as if customs officials at an international airport allowed passengers to take their luggage home and return a week later for inspection, said Arauz.

He was joined by Javier Catón of an organization called Asociación de Pescadores del Pacífico in expressing concern about the lack of immediate inspection.

The fishing ships that arrive should go first to a public dock under public scrutiny to offload their cargo completely and all the parts of the ship should be inspected where shark fins and other contraband could be hidden, said Catón.

In charge of enforcing the regulations are the Instituto Costarricense de Pesca y Acuicultura as well as the Puntarenas port captain.

Finning is when fishermen catch sharks and just remove the fin for export to Asia. Frequently the disabled shark is dumped back in the water.

A growing Chinese middle class has increased the demand for shark fin soup, which usually is served on festive occasions.

The television chef, Ramsay, gave a highly dramatic interview to The Daily Telegraph in London. He said that the day before he arrived a Taiwanese crew brought in a load of hammerhead sharks and that police found ‘bales of cocaine.”

That event seems to have escaped the local news outlets.

Ramsay never really said where he was in Costa Rica when he was threatened, but he spoke of forts, barbed-wire perimeters and gun towers. He also said he managed to shake people who were following him and went up some stairs and saw thousands of shark fins drying on a rooftop as far as the eye could see. When he came down the stairs, someone dumped fuel on him, suggesting that he would be set afire, he said.

Then he reported cars with blacked out windows arrived and tried to block in his vehicle. He did not say how much of the incident is on tape.

Ramsay also said that Costa Rican police were present during some of his filming here and that officers advised him to leave. The incident is likely to provide negative international visibility to Costa Rica.

There is no recent report of cocaine being hidden in sharks, but Mexican police found cocaine in the belly of frozen sharks exported from Costa Rica in 2009.

Local environmentalists like Arauz are encouraged by an expanded U.S. ban on shark finning in U.S. waters that was passed last month. The law requires sharks to be landed with fins attached.

Costa Rica is a major exporter of shark fins to Asia. Thousands of tons of dried fins are exported annually.

Arauz and others have been protesting the lax controls on fishing boats for years, but central government officials basically have ignored their complaints.

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