Thursday, January 6, 2011

Shark Fins and Guns: celebrity chef threatened in Costa Rica

The shark fin trade is not only a very lucrative business due to the high demand in Asian markets for shark fin products, it can also be a very dangerous one. This was a lesson intimately learned by U.K. celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay will filming a segment in Costa Rica for the U.K. television series The Big Fish Fight, which advocates sustainable fishing practices.

Chef Ramsay was in Costa Rica to document the extent of the shark fin trade and he certainly got an eyeful when he and his camera crew approached a shark fin processing operation. To say the least, he was not met with open arms as he and his crew were threatened by fisherman out to protect their illegal catches. The scene was akin to Mexican drug labs and the armed guards that protect them.

Reported in The Telegraph, Ramsay recalled, "These gangs operate from places that are like forts, with barbed-wire perimeters and gun towers. At one, I managed to shake off the people who were keeping us away, ran up some stairs to a rooftop and looked down to see thousands and thousands of fins, drying on rooftops as far as the eye could see. When I got back downstairs they tipped a barrel of petrol over me. Then these cars with blacked out windows suddenly appeared from nowhere, trying to block us in. We dived into the car and peeled off."

Eventually, Ramsay was able to talk his way on board one of the fishing boats and he later found that the boat was carrying illegally-taken shark fins, which caused another commotion.

"There were people pointing rifles at us to stop us filming," said Ramsay. "A van pulled up and these seedy characters made us stand against the wall. The police came and advised us to leave the country. They said 'if you set one foot in there, they'll shoot you'."

While Costa Rica has been lauded in some circles for its ecological and conservation efforts, there is a festering weakness in its efforts due to the unregulated and illegal shark finning activities that take place there. The fact that the police are aware of these activities but choose to do nothing is an indication as to the power and influence that these groups, who have been labeled by some as an Asian "shark fin mafia", have over the Costa Rican government and its law enforcement branches.

When talking with my shark advocate colleagues, I will often propose that shark conservation must enter a new phase, a new level of strategic sophistication to combat the forces that are depleting the world of sharks. With a multi-billion dollar industry at stake, the barbarous cruelty and waste of shark finning means nothing to these people. The importance of sharks as anything else than a revenue stream is of no consequence to them. It will take strong political pressure from nations sympathetic to sharks and the important ecological role they play to try to force the hand of apathetic countries who provide safe harbor for these criminals. But it won't be easy, not when guns and corruption are involved.

We can pursue trying to influence the Asian populace and stifle the demand for shark fin products. But with continued economic growth and expanding consumerism in those markets, it's almost an insurmountable task; the war is not lost, but it's a helluva a battle. Shark conservation needs to consolidate its efforts towards strategies that encourage hardball international diplomacy. The shark fin industry is ecologically unconscionable, but - like drugs, child pornography, and slavery - it's equally as vicious.

Read about Gordon Ramsay's encounter in
The Telegraph.
Read more in Ramsay's encounter in
My thanks to my daughter, Dr. Sherrilynn Theiss, for bringing this news item to my attention.

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