Updated: Aug 18
As 2020 drew to a close, an article started doing the rounds on social media, lauding Colombia for their drastic action to ban shark fishing within their waters. A friend of mine drew my attention to this and whilst it sounded like wonderful news, we also realised we had several questions about the new legislation: "Will no sharks ever be fished in Colombia again?", "What about sharks caught as "bycatch?" and "When does the law actually come into power?". In short, we wondered if it was too good to be true. So after some research (involving some very crude Google translations of documents in Spanish), I hope I can clear up some confusion you have regarding the Colombian shark fishing ban...
The Republic of Colombia, located at the northern tip of South America, is a diverse and complex country... With some regions enjoying tropical heat and rainfall, where others are barren deserts, Colombia is a myriad of different ecosystems, from lush rainforests, to savannahs, to craggy mountains. As a result, Colombia boasts some of the highest biodiversity of any country in the world. Where the land dips into the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Pacific in the east, Colombian waters are home to as many as 76 different species of sharks! Heaven!
Traditionally, sharks have been fished by artisanal fishers in Colombia, both for food and as a source of income. However, in recent years, sharks have been caught in increasingly large numbers in industrial fisheries. They are fished for their meat, but also for their liver oil and teeth, and for exportation in the booming international shark fin market. Studies have shown that fisheries actively targeting sharks and rays in Colombia are responsible for a massive 28% of the total volume of fish landed. Sharks are also caught as incidental "bycatch" when vessels are targeting other commercial species. For example, it has been estimated that in certain regions of the country, incidental catches of sharks and rays make up at least 6% of the total fishery catch, especially in industrial fisheries using deep horizontal and vertical longlines (ANAP, 2017).
Since 1990, after scientific reports explained that Colombia's shark fishing was unsustainable, the government implemented several different reforms to improve fisheries management. These eventually evolved into Resolución 1743 in 2017. Produced by the Colombia Autoridad Nacional de Acuicultura y Pesca, this Resolution sought to "guarantee the sustainable development, conservation or restoration" of sharks in the Colombian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (ANAP, 2017).
Prior to 2017, Colombian legislation had only protected sharks from finning; it was illegal to cut fins from a live shark and throw the carcass back. However, Resolución 1743 implemented specific limitations on targeted shark fishing of any kind. The reform stipulated that sharks may not be actively targeted by fisheries, but that incidental bycatch was acceptable if sharks were caught accidentally and did not exceed 35% of the total catch (the exception being the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, where shark bycatch cannot exceed 5%) (ANAP, 2017).
The legislation mentioned that it was critical to organise systems of surveillance and enforce penalties, to ensure the new law was complied with. However, no further details were given regarding how these endeavours would be funded, nor specifying what the punishments for law-breakers might be. Subsequently, there have been criticisms that Colombian waters were poorly supervised and illegal shark fishing continued unfettered (ANAP, 2017).
The recent shark fishing ban referenced in social social media posts, comes from a statement made by the Colombian President, Iván Duque Márquez in November 2020. This statement follows a new bill (Bill 083) being raised in parliament. Citing scientific evidence that shark fishing in Colombia is still unsustainable (Mejía-Falla, et al 2019), this bill sought to criminalise shark and ray fishing in the Colombian EEZ, and to ban the commercial sale of fins from endangered shark species. After being debated in the House of Representatives and subsequently the Senate of the Republic, Bill 038 was unanimously passed.
"Any form of shark fishing is prohibited in Colombia, be it industrial or artisanal”
[Translated from the original Spanish via Google Translate]
- Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez
Therefore, the President sanctioned that the government would enforce a complete shark fishing ban. He stated that this would make any and all shark fishing illegal, throughout all of Colombia's 127,400+ square miles of waters. He said legislation was "to follow", but as far as I can find, did not publicly specify when this might be.
The statement also did not detail exactly what the laws would be surrounding shark and ray bycatch in industrial fisheries. As Bill 083 sought to level-up Colombian shark conservation, we could presume that incidental catches will be capped at a rate lower than the 35% allowed with Resolución 1743. Yet, we must wait for the written legislation to be produced before we speculate (ANAP, 2017).
What is particularly unique about Colombia's proposed shark fishing ban, is that ministers specifically mentioned plans to compensate local people who may be affected by the changing law. President Duque Márquez stated that those who would lose income as a result of the ban would receive payments for "environmental services". Carlos Eduardo Correa, Colombian Minister of the Environment, estimated that approximately 550 coastal families would be eligible for this finacial support. This compensation could be critical for low income artisanal fishers, who rely on sharks as a food source and/or a source of income. It may also provide an incentive for communities to abide by the new law.
I am very impressed with the Colombian government's plans to integrate social and economic issues within conservation legislation. One of the greatest limitations on many conservation initiatives around the world is the conflict which local people, whose lives are significantly impacted by new laws. It is my belief, that for any conservation initiatives to be successful in the future, it will be vital to work with local communities, and to consider economic and cultural issues that will make people feel resistant to conservation plans.
"The decision of this country allows us to take care of our natural resources and our ecosystems. We have to create a balance between social, environmental and economic interests."
[Translated from the original Spanish via Google Translate]
- Carlos Eduardo Correa, Colombian Minister of the Environment
Also, what I find especially exciting about these statements, is that the Colombian government seems to have taken scientific advice on board... Minister Correa mentioned scientific concern about "trophic cascades" being triggered by the removal of sharks from the ecosystem. He specifically mentioned that extraction of sharks has been scientifically proven to throw ecosystems out of balance and damage coral reefs (To learn more about these trophic cascades, check out Restructuring the Reef). It is very encouraging to see politicians actually citing scientific research in their statements and bringing this knowledge into parliament (Mejía-Falla, et al 2019).
Only time will tell whether the Colombian government follows through on its promises. I will be eagerly awaiting the publication of the new legislation, to see if there is any suspicious fine-print or sneaky loopholes. Watch this space...
ANAP (2017). Colombia Autoridad Nacional de Acuicultura y Pesca, Resolución 1743 de 2017. Access online.
Mejía-Falla PA, Castro ER, Ballesteros CA, Bent-Hooke H, Caldas JP, Rojas A & Naviaa AF (2019). Effect of a precautionary management measure on the vulnerability and ecological risk of elasmobranchs captured as target fisheries. Regional Studies in Marine Science, 31:100779.