No Way to Make Soup—Thirty-two tons of contraband shark fins seized on the high seas

Something looked suspicious.

This former swordfishing vessel, out of Honolulu, was clearly heavy with cargo when discovered by U.S. law-enforcement officials 350 miles off of Acapulco, on Aug. 13. A boarding team found no fishing–just shark fins. However, under a new federal law, transporting fins collected by another fishing vessel constitutes illegal “fishing.” US Coast Guard

On Aug. 15, the Coast Guard Cutter Chase–with a crew of 178–took custody of the fishing boat, its crew, and decaying contraband. The Chase, in white, is seen beginning its 8-day escort of the King Diamond II, in red. At San Diego, the Chase turned over its “catch of the week” to National Marine Fisheries enforcement officials. US Coast Guard

On Aug. 23, NOAA took possession of the fishing boat and what turned out to be 32 tons of stinking shark fins. Nearly all had been neatly bundled into roped bales. Shown here are just a tiny portion of the loot that had been stored on deck–presumably in the hope it would start drying to retard further decay. US Coast Guard

On Aug. 13, a helicopter from the Navy’s USS Fife spotted an 84-foot fishing boat–the King Diamond II out of Honolulu–plowing slowly through international seas southeast of Acapulco, Mexico. Riding low in the water, the modern vessel appeared weighted down with heavy cargo. Yet there were no signs of fishing gear. Particularly curious, on its deck was a shipping container like those ferried by long-haul trucks or container ships.

When the crew radioed in the sighting, a Coast Guard law-enforcement detachment on the Fife agreed that something didn’t sound quite right. It radioed the King Diamond II to confirm that it was a U.S. vessel and asked a few questions. Still suspicious of the ship’s activities, the Fife‘s Coast Guard contingent contacted a federal-law-enforcement body known as the Joint Interagency Task Force-West (JIATF-W) and got permission to investigate further. Though used to encountering people who plunder marine resources, the Coast Guard team was anything but prepared for what awaited it.

There were fins. Literally, tons and tons of stinking, disembodied shark fins. A 40-foot-long hold was stuffed full of fins. Bundles more sat on deck and in the shipping container.

Although the boarding crew was appalled, it didn’t know whether the cargo was contraband. Their supervisors back at JIATF-W, however, immediately recognized that the fins represented strong evidence of outlaw activity. The Coast Guard’s command center instructed the boarding party to take custody of the vessel and secure it until an escort ship with forensic specialists could take over.

On Aug. 15, the 378-foot Coast Guard Cutter Chase, which had just completed a patrolling mission off Acapulco, took over. To investigate the nature of the problem, “we sent one of the most experienced boarding officers, Petty Officer Tabar,” explains Chase Capt. Mark S. Kern. “He began processing the crime scene,” which included interviewing the four-man crew.

Tabar encountered no resistance. Indeed, he says, the crew “were very cooperative–almost nonchalant.” Throughout much of his investigation, he notes, “they just cooked and watched their TV.” Kern suspects that’s because, “they really didn’t think that they had done anything wrong. They had said, ‘We didn’t do the shark finning.'”

Such an excuse suggests these men really didn’t understand the law.

No fins permitted without their bodies

The Shark Finning Prohibition Act, which went into effect March 13, makes it illegal for a U.S. fishing boat anywhere–or foreign ship in U.S. territorial waters–to possess the fins of any shark unless the rest of its carcass is also onboard. A similar law has been in effect for Atlantic fleets since 1993, and, more recently, in certain regional areas of the Pacific.

It’s not illegal to catch sharks, although the type and quantity that may be caught is limited in most U.S. waters. What’s banned is the killing of sharks merely to garner one or more of their cartilage-rich fins. Moreover, under the law, taking receipt of disembodied fins from other fishermen still constitutes “fishing”–so the King Diamond II can be held directly culpable, explains Paul Ortiz, a senior marine-fisheries enforcement attorney with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in Long Beach, Calif.

Globally, shark populations are in trouble. Many of these top predators are caught unintentionally in fishing nets and lines targeted at more traditional seafood species. Increasingly, however, sharks have become the focus of targeted fishing efforts. Though their meat is sold in many markets, the primary factor driving their harvest is a large and growing demand for their fins–a delicacy that serves as the basis for a soup that can sell for as much as $100 a bowl in some East Asian cities.

With the fins of many sharks now commanding a price far in excess of that for the rest of the carcass, many fishermen have taken to slicing the fins off any shark they haul in–alive or dead–and dropping the rest of the body overboard. The number of sharks lost to such practices has been escalating rapidly, according to the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

The new federal antifinning law was meant to stem that waste. Yet with the lure of quick money that finning offers, even U.S. sharks remain in jeopardy.

For quite a while, Pacific fishing crews have viewed shark fins as bonus pay–sort of the equivalent of a “tip” for their services rendered, explains Ortiz. Marine fishing boats often land up to 10 sharks per trip as “bycatch”–untargeted species picked up as part of a harvest directed at other fish. Ortiz says that fishing captains had rationalized that “if the crew was crazy enough to wrestle an 8-foot shark onto the deck and cut its fins off, they ought to be able to keep the money.” At least, he acknowledges, until the price of fins began to soar and boat owners realized, “We’re now talking about serious money.”

In some regions, the wholesale price of fins can go for upwards of $200 per pound, while shark meat may garner less than 50 cents per pound. The escalating value of shark fins has led many crews to sneak fins from a few sharks into port along with their gear. So, for the past 9 months or so, NOAA has been warning fishermen, seafood wholesalers, port staffs, and others about its intent to rigorously enforce the new antifinning law.

But never had Ortiz expected to net such a big fish in the finning world as the King Diamond II.

‘What a massacre’

Even from a mile downwind of the King Diamond II, the stench of rotting fins assaulted any crew on the Chase‘s deck. Aboard the fishing boat, the reek of ammonia proved overpowering, Tabar says, unless “you were on the forward part of the ship facing into the wind.” As he approached the hold to view its loot, “the smell of ammonia was so strong that I actually stopped breathing through my nose and started breathing through my mouth. But then I got a burning at the back of my throat.”

The visual assault presented by those decaying fins proved every bit as overwhelming, he says. Even on the deck, “shark fins were all over” in bundles 2 feet wide and 3 or more feet high. “I was in awe. I just couldn’t believe it,” he says.

There were easily hundreds of bundles, each appearing to contain several hundred triangular fins between 10 and 30 inches long on a side. Each two or three fins likely represents a shark. Tabar says, “You start doing the numbers in your head and realize, what a massacre!”

“And this was just one ship that got stopped. How many more are getting through?” he now worries.

In fact, his investigations showed that this was at least the King Diamond II‘s second run of the summer. That first was quite profitable. The 30 tons of fins it hauled into Guatemala garnered $100 a pound, Kern says–altogether some $6 million.

To understand the profit margin, Kern adds, you have to realize that the King Diamond II bought its latest haul of fins–some 32 tons, it turns out–for only about $250,000. Unfortunately, he adds, the fishing boat’s refrigeration unit had conked out before the start of the run, so the fins were decaying badly.

This raises a question, Kern says, about what value such decomposing plunder would have had when it was offloaded in Guatemala. Even that port was a long way from the loot’s final destination: China.

Ortiz was on hand to oversee the unloading of the stinking contraband when it arrived in San Diego on Aug. 23. “We’d heard from the crew that we had maybe 12 tons of fins–which would have been enormous, the biggest seizure ever. But within 15 minutes, it was clear that there was far more.”

The fins were compactly stored in neatly roped 100-pound bundles. “Each pallet that would come off the boat was 1,800 pounds of shark fins–and represented perhaps a couple thousand sharks,” Ortiz says. “And when you realize that 95 percent of the shark was thrown overboard, you really start to think about the waste. It was just sickening.”

Eight men labored for 7 hours straight to get those fins into trucks bound for a secure cold-storage locker as evidence. A preliminary back-of-the-envelope calculation, Ortiz told Science News Online, now suggests the smuggled goods represent the loss of some 30,000 sharks, fish weighing an estimated 1.28 million pounds.

He says his agency has begun recruiting experts to offer a valuation of the fins. “And as soon as we tell them that it’s 32 tons, their jaws drop.”

The probe continues

Tabar collected records, including nautical charts, that he says indicate the King Diamond II had left Honolulu, then sailed down by the Fiji and Solomon Islands, where they made a lot of pickups. His team also confiscated a binder full of notes made by the Korean fin broker who was on board the seized vessel. In a mix of English and Korean, that broker had annotated what appeared to be a list of some 20 large Asian fishing vessels plying the Eastern Pacific, with details of the number of fins picked up from each and the amount paid for each acquisition.

All of those records were turned over in sealed evidence bags to NOAA.

“Normally,” Ortiz observes, “we will hold liable the operator of the vessel, the owner, and likely, in this case, the company that the [fins] purchaser worked for.” Uncle Sam can fine them $120,000 for each violation of the law, such as each purchase of fins. Based on the records that Tabar’s team brought back, he says, “there is the potential for a lot of violations.” Further, violators of the law lose the fins–and perhaps their boat.

Right now, Ortiz says, criminal investigators are poring over a mountain of Korean-language documents in hopes of understanding precisely where the fins had been headed.

But what if the boat hadn’t carried a U.S. flag? Even if it had been a Korean boat, Kern says, every effort would have been made to stop the finning or transport of wildlife plunder. “Keeping us from going on board is not an option, in our minds,” he says. “We would engage our government to approach the government [of the other ship’s owner]” with a request to let the Coast Guard step in. Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, told Science News Online much the same thing.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is committed to catching and bringing to justice those who plunder our marine resources,” Carter says. He maintains that the King Diamond II seizure “should serve as a warning to those who incorrectly assume that the Coast Guard’s resolve to conduct fisheries enforcement at sea has been lessened by the increase in our maritime homeland security operations.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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