Many fish stocks are expected to be depleted during the coming years due to overexploitation and illegal fishing. Shark fishing driven by the million-dollar fin trade have pushed some species of shark into a heightened risk of disappearing. To counteract overfishing and preserve biodiversity, some governments have created marine protected areas (MPA) where the species can thrive without human pressure.
The Galapagos Marine Reserve, an MPA in the east Pacific, harbors and protects 36 species of sharks. This makes it a popular destination for divers and researchers attracted to its biodiversity. Nevertheless, the same biological richness also attracts illegal fisheries that trespasses the borders of the reserve, exploiting the difficulty of open sea monitoring.
In August 2017, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, a Chinese vessel was captured inside the GMR with 572 tons of fish including hundreds of sharks. The boat’s crew were sentenced from 1-3 years imprisonment and fined $6 million for the illegal possession and transport of protected species. The silver lining was that the seized cargo gave the opportunity for a group of researchers to study it, using morphological and molecular barcoding.
They found that from the 12 species of shark identified, 11 were present in the GMR from which 9 species are considered at risk. The cargo was composed of species of different sizes including a whale shark, to reef species that would suggest illegal trade with coastal fisheries. Several immature and unborn sharks were found on the boat; for one species immature individuals made up 86 percent of the total sample analyzed. Moreover, the researchers used advanced molecular techniques to attempt to identify the geographic origins of the cargo. Unfortunately they were unsuccessful due to the limited availability of molecular samples of the region stored in the international genetics database.
This case exposes the magnitude of the threat posed by fishing industries and illegal trade in marine reserves on already vulnerable shark populations. Additionally, it highlights the importance of satellite technologies in the monitoring of fishing activities, that in the case of the Fu Yuan, provided the evidence necessary for the successful prosecution of the culprits.