Using 8-inch boning knives with quick precision, they dismember the once-mighty predators, cutting off heads, carving up big slabs of meat, slashing off the tails. Most important, they cut off the fins — dorsal and pectorals — a “set” that can fetch $100 or more.
“That is what is really important, the fins,” said Luis Salto, 57, as he sliced up sharks. “They sell in China.”
Indeed, the fins collected here are exported in a quasi-legal network to Hong Kong, Beijing, Taiwan, Singapore and other corners of Asian affluence. There, a heaping bowl of shark fin soup, touted as offering medicinal or aphrodisiac qualities, is dished up for as much as $200.
Some sharks, such as the hammerhead and the great white, have been reduced by upward of 70 percent in the past 15 years, while others, such as the silky white tip, have disappeared from the Caribbean.
“If you go to any reef around the world, except for those that are really protected, the sharks are gone,” said Ransom Myers, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
“Their value is so great that completely harmless sharks, like whale sharks, are killed for their fins.”
Fins sell for as much as $700 per kilogram in Asia, making big sharks worth thousands of dollars. In the vast dried seafood market of Sai Ying Pun on Hong Kong Island on a recent day, shark fin stores had no shortage of buyers.
“Serving shark fins in banquets is a tradition for Chinese people,” said Chiu Ching-cheung, chairman of the Shark Fin Trade Merchants’ Association in Hong Kong. “Without shark fin, a Chinese banquet does not look like one at all.”
While Asia’s environmental movement has grown, with stars such as Jackie Chan and the director Ang Lee lending their names, environmentalists say educating the shark-eating public about overfishing remains an uphill battle.
With the vast waters off Asia largely depleted, fishermen are focusing on regions that still swarm with sharks, such as the cold, deep waters of the Pacific stretching from Peru north to Central America.
On a recent day here, Captain Nelson Laje, 42, piloted a 60-ton trawler, La Ahijada, into Manta’s port, its hold filled with 150 blues and threshers, among the most common of Pacific sharks…
“They do not want us to capture the sharks, but we need them to pay our expenses and make a living,” Laje said. “The shark, the fishing, will never end. Fishing will only end when the water ends.”
By a conservative estimate, more than 279,000 pounds of shark fins, representing about 300,000 sharks, were exported from Ecuador to China and Hong Kong in 2003, twice as much as in the mid-1990s.
Ecuador’s government has been unable to contain shark fishing, the exportation of fins or the internationally reviled practice of finning, where the fins of sharks are sliced off on the high seas and the carcass is left behind, environmentalists and the Environment Ministry say.
Alfredo Carrasco, an Environment Ministry official who oversees natural resources management, acknowledged that the lack of resources permits “illegal actions.” He placed much of the blame on Asian countries, where importing the fins is legal.
“As long as there is demand in Asian countries, this will continue,” he said.
The fins move through a murky network of buyers, transporters, middlemen and exporters.
“Fins are what we need,” said Alejandro Flores, La Ahijada’s owner. “What else do we have? If we don’t catch sharks, the people would have nothing to live off of.”…
Asians’ taste for shark fins depleting species
The fishing and export trade of the delicacy thrive despite a 2004 ban by Ecuador