DRAWING ATTENTION TO THE PLIGHT OF HIGHLY VULNERABLE SHARK AND RAY SPECIES WORLDWIDE

 

PIP NEWS

ABOUT PIP

EXPEDITIONS

SUPPORT PIP

CONTACT VIDEOS IMAGES

 

PIP SPONSORS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 2008 EL SALVADOR MALLETHEAD SHARK EXPEDITION

 

This is the true story of a journey to find a little known species of hammerhead shark that ended at the heart of the Central American shark finning industry.

 

The Mallethead Shark Sphyrna corona, is a small species of hammerhead that lives in the turbid coastal waters of the eastern tropical Pacific. Mostly because of its extreme rarity and preference for murky inaccessible habitats, it has never been photographed in the wild. Small, endemic shark populations are extremely vulnerable to overfishing, and without compelling images to help inspire conservation measures, the mallethead (like many other rare sharks) may simply cease to exist before any attempt has been made to save it.

 

Still busy rebuilding its image after a long and bloody civil war, El Salvador is rarely visited by tourists, let alone divers.  The last time that I was there was back in the turmoil of 1989. During that visit, I was pulled off a bus and held at gun point in the middle of a field. Eventually, I was released unscathed but other travelers and foreign aid workers were not so lucky. Today, El Salvador is a land in transition. The people are practical, helpful and exceptionally friendly. They are also obsessed with security which is not surprising considering that E.S. has the 4th highest incidence of violent crime in the world.

Upon arrival in San Salvador I paid a visit to Alex Hasbun who runs El Salvador Divers. Alex pioneered scuba diving in the region and is well known for his marine conservation work. When I explained my mission to photograph the Mallethead Shark he immediately committed to the project and began phoning local fishermen to try to get information on my shark. Alex explained that in all his years of diving he had never seen a shark in El Salvadorian waters. This was discouraging but I was undaunted. Even if he had encountered sharks, it was unlikely that he would have seen a Mallethead because of its secretive nature.  If I was going to get close enough to photograph this particular species I would have to work with the fishermen. I reasoned that if they let me release one from their nets, I could snap some pictures before it swam off into the grey.

There was a young man named Max waiting for me when I returned to my hotel that afternoon. Something about Max made my skin crawl and I wanted to get away from him as soon as I could. Somehow he had heard that I was in town and he offered to take me to see a shark fisherman named Juan who had some knowledge of local sharks. It involved a trip into a rundown suburb of San Salvador and I was nervous. Unwisely, I agreed to accompany him and as we drove along, Max talked about his time in the US, his subsequent deportation and his drug convictions.

Max’s beaten up sedan crawled past graffiti sprayed buildings topped with corrugated tin roofs laced with razor wire. Juan’s house was encased in a network of sturdy wrought iron bars. We were escorted past Doberman Pincers to a central living area where Juan explained that he was a businessman who had very little to do with the shark fishing industry. Max looked about sheepishly while Juan called another supposed shark fisherman. This man had no idea about sharks but wanted me to charter his sport fishing boat. Tired of playing ‘fleece the gringo’ I asked Max to drive me back to my hotel.

Alex and I spent the next day pouring over maps of the coastline. We narrowed our search down to an area in the east of the country where the Rio Lempa (among others) empties vast quantities of coffee colored water into a network of mangrove fringed lagoons; an ideal habitat for small coastal sharks.

After making plans to visit the area the following day, Alex introduced me to his cousin Professor Carlos Roberto Hasbun who is the President of the conservation group Funzel. Coincidentally, Carlos Roberto is also spearheading the newly established Central American Shark Coalition which was created to bolster legislation limiting offshore shark fishing. Over the last few decades, rampant shark finning along the Pacific coast of Central America has led to a dangerous reduction in shark numbers. Silky sharks, threshers, and scalloped hammerheads are the main targets of this largely unregulated fishery and unlike the artesanal Salvadorian fishermen, the offshore Taiwanese fleets are only interested in the fins. Their cruel and wasteful practice of throwing the finless live sharks back into the ocean, allows their enormous factory ships to harvest and process thousands of animals on each catastrophic trip.

Carlos Roberto’s group is working hard to force the fleets to land their sharks intact (fins attached). This will limit the amount of sharks that can be stored onboard each ship reducing some of the pressure on depleted stocks.

Early the next morning we drove to La Puntia, a long peninsula that protects the lagoons from the pounding Pacific surf. From there, we traveled by dingy to a small port to check on the morning’s shark catch. Apart from a tiny Scalloped Hammerhead in a bucket, the fishermen had caught no sharks so we continued further down river until we reached the small fishing community of Isla Tasajera.

Even before making landfall I could see a large caudal fin protruding from a nearby panga (a small wooden skiff). Under the watchful eyes of the community Alex nosed our dingy onto the beach and we stepped ashore. Simultaneously, an athletic young fisherman rolled the headless corpse of a large thresher shark over the gunwales of his boat, letting it slap into the shallows at his feet. He picked up his fleecing knife and began sharpening it against a stone while Alex introduced us both to the gathering knot of fishermen.

Once he was satisfied with the blade, the butcher went to work, firstly slicing off the shark’s fins which he threw haphazardly off to one side. Next he removed its toughened hide, peeling it away from the meat as though it were nothing more than saran wrap. He worked at lightning speed while I circled around him with my Nikon, trying to document the process.

In the centre of the group of men was Fransisco Coto, a shark fin dealer from San Salvador. The locals called him El Zambuzi - The Bull Shark. Fransisco buys fins from numerous shark fishing cooperatives along the coast and sells them to a mysterious character that the fishermen call ‘The Hindu’. The Hindu appeared in San Salvador about 15 years ago from India. Since that time he has grown steadily richer and more powerful. Now he is the largest exporter of shark fins north of Costa Rica.

Fransisco pays $19 to $23 dollars per pound for fins depending on the species. Hammerhead fins fetch the highest prices because of their high fiber content. Once the fibers are rehydrated  they take on a noodle-like appearance. These shark noodles are the controversial ingredient of the oriental delicacy shark fin soup.

They call the hammerhead shark La Charula which comes from the local word charro, the wide brimmed Mexican hat. Pulling out my field guide I pointed to drawings of the different types of hammerheads and asked them which ones they generally encountered. They explained that during April and May thousands of Scalloped Hammerheads migrate inshore to give birth and that during that season they catch them in great numbers. I said that I was looking for the smaller Mallethead shark and I emphasized its different characteristics. This generated much discussion that I found hard to follow. Alex translated that apparently they did see this shark but its appearance was rare and unpredictable.

Another fisherman then pulled out a large plastic sack from the bottom of his panga. Upending it onto a dirty piece of plywood, he tipped out 20 or more scalloped hammerhead pups. The lifeless embryos lay in a heap glistening in the sun while the butcher resharpened his knife. He explained that these baby sharks, barely 12 inches long, were destined to become cerviche, a kind of marinated fish salad that is popular in the region.

The shark fishermen take their pangas 80 miles offshore to set their long-lines, returning with their catch after 3 days. Most do not carry GPS, radios, or spare outboard motors and occasionally they are found drifting towards the coast a month or more after their departure. Some pangas simply disappear.

A well dressed man named Jacobo joined the men huddled around my shark book. Unlike the shark fishermen, Jacobo was a gill-netter. Pointing to yet another species, he said that the Smooth Hammerhead sphyrna zygaena sometimes got tangled in his nets. I then explained to them that I wanted to get in the water with the sharks to photograph them while they were still alive. The fishermen took this idea surprisingly calmly.

Jacobo invited us to accompany him and his son Antonio on their fishing trip that evening. Alex was not keen to sleep in a small rocking panga in the middle of the ocean and I too had some reservations especially when he told me to bring lots of Dramamine as there would be no escape from the merciless Pacific swells. Needing to think this over, I thanked him and said I would try to return the next day.

On the way back to San Salvador I did my best to convince Alex to join me on the adventure. Conversing with Jacobo for an entire night in my rudimentary Spanish would be difficult enough, but I was worried that I would not be able to give instructions in the event that we did catch a shark. Alex agreed to lend me an air tank and give me directions back to the island but after that I was on my own.

The next afternoon I hired a panga and returned to Isla Tasajera. I was directed to the fisherman’s cooperative where Jacobo eyed up my enormous bag of dive gear and submersible camera with some surprise. For a moment I thought he was going to retract his offer but he nodded slowly and told me we would sail before sunset. Relieved, I sat under the shade of a champa, a simple wooden framed structure with a palm thatched roof, and talked sharks with the retired fishermen of the community.

 

Jacobo and Antonio finished setting their nets as the sky turned red, five miles off the Salvadorian coast. In darkness we sat eating tortillas and laughing at each other’s half understood stories. When the conversation died, the mariners pulled hammocks from a bucket and strung them diagonally across the gunwales. For me, they provided a soft mattress that Jacobo laid out next to a pillow so grimy that I didn’t dare to touch it. Staring up at a thick blanket of stars, we traded the names of constellations before I drifted off to sleep with my feet hanging over the starboard rail.

Jacobo woke us at 4am to begin the laborious task of recovering the nets.  He and Antonio worked in unison, pulling a yard at a time onto the deck. 200 yards lay neatly folded before the first fish, a mackerel, fell to the floor. Half an hour passed before they saw another and as the final buoy approached, I resigned myself to the idea that this trip was going to be completely sharkless. For his nights endeavor Jacobo had four fish weighing about 30lb. These, he presented to the cooperative upon our return; a sad testament to the condition of our oceans.

He invited me to his house for breakfast. It was a primitive building with a mud floor but it was spotlessly clean. His wife Maria cooked eggs while we sat and talked in broken Spanish about families, sharks, and the war in El Salvador.  Jacobo, like many others in his village, had fought in the militia to protect the island from insurgents. While we ate, some of his 50 nieces and nephews dropped by. It was humbling to see the aura of contentment that Jacobo displayed around his family. “Pura vida” he said to me smiling, ‘the good life’.

By mid afternoon I was back in San Salvador. I strolled into El Salvador Divers and Alex invited me to a dinner party. My jeans smelled of fish and grime from sleeping on the panga but they were all I had, so I threw on a clean shirt and we drove downtown.

If I had known that we were going to a party for El Salvador’s legal elite I might have made a bigger effort to clean up. We missed the President of El Salvador by half an hour, but as we entered the ballroom, the eyes of the most powerful lawyers and judges in the country turned in shocked amazement to see the unshaven gringo with the big grin come loping through the door. With a smile Alex turned and whispered “tonight we swim with the most dangerous sharks in Latin America”. Before long I had been introduced to most of the high court judges, and a score of steely eyed lawyers, all dressed in silk suits and with trophy wives hanging off their arms. As we met each one, Alex introduced me as El Cazador de Tiburones (The Shark Hunter). They had no idea what to say to me. It was priceless.

We ended up in a bar, drinking the night away with a couple of lawyers that Alex had taught to dive. But, as the whiskey flowed it began to sink in that my grand plan to photograph the elusive Mallethead Shark had failed.

 

The next day, nursing a sore head, I joined Alex at Los Cobanos where we explored a reef system that was created when an ancient volcanic eruption threw apartment sized cinder blocks into the ocean. The visibility was horrendous and I was barely able to make out each coral formation as I groped my way along the seabed. Twenty years ago Los Cobanos contained a vibrant marine ecosystem unparalleled on the Pacific coast of Central America. Sadly, erosion caused by slash and burn land clearing techniques and the harvesting of the forests for fuel has caused 75% of El Salvador's irreplaceable topsoil to slide into the rivers. Each year thousands of metric tons of fertile earth spews out onto the Pacific slope, clogging sponges and suffocating corals. Consequently, only the hardiest invertebrate species survive and water clear enough for diving is rarely encountered except during the dry season when river runoff is at a minimum.

 

We moved on to Lago Ilopango, a deep crater lake teaming with freshwater fishes and warmed by submerged volcanic vents. 

Once the cool liquid had cleaned the fog from my brain I attempted to reassess my mission. It was time to let it go of the Mallethead (at least for this trip) and concentrate on an angle of the story that had been nagging at me. I had met the fishermen that inadvertently catch small coastal sharks, and the fearless cazadores that ply the waters far off shore for enormous pelagic sharks. I had questioned Fransisco Coto who travels from village to village buying up fins to resell in the city and interviewed Carlos Roberto Hasbun who is fighting to limit the impact of offshore factory ships. The picture was solidifying but there was one more person I needed to meet. Before I left El Salvador I wanted to find 'The Hindu'. I imagined him as a turbaned figure sitting atop a mountain of fins surrounded by armed guards. It seemed unlikely that he would grant me an audience but with two days to kill and half a story, I had nothing to lose.

 

Alex and I spent the next morning making calls. Eventually we tracked down Francisco ‘The Bull Shark’ who gave us as much information on The Hindu as he could. His real name was Carlos Pinto which seemed odd for a man of Indian descent. Not trusting my Spanish, Alex called his office in San Salvador and explained that a North American journalist was writing a story about the history of the shark fishing industry. He was told that Señor Pinto would return soon and our message would be passed on. At 4.30pm we called again. This time Alex was transferred to Carlos Pinto’s office and he immediately handed the phone to me. I introduced myself in English and reiterated that I wanted to better understand the industry. Sr. Pinto was suspicious but friendly enough. When I told him that I worked for a shark diving magazine and that I had no specific environmental agenda he began to relax. Amazingly, he invited me to lunch the following day, and after the call I sat in Alex’s office in stunned silence.

Carlos turned out to be a rushed 60ish business man in a grey suit. He shook my hand firmly and we began by talking about the Mallethead Shark. Not surprisingly, his knowledge of sharks was excellent and he suggested that if I returned, I should concentrate my search in Nicaragua.

He then explained that he had been approached by reporters in the past but they had turned out to be environmentalists looking to expose him in some negative way and he had declined their interviews. A quick internet search would have revealed me to be just as vocal about shark finning but luckily he had not had time to do a background check. Overrun with work, Carlos introduced me to his step son Rafael who accompanied me to a restaurant to talk about finning.

Rafael was as friendly and matter of fact as his father who he called Charlie. He told me that Charlie was from a Portuguese colony in India which explained his Hispanic name. Because of his fair attitude when dealing with the fishermen he had quickly risen through the ranks of the other fin traders and now he controlled most of the shark fins exported between the Costa Rican Border and Mexico. Every 1 to 2 months he would send a container filled with 1000lb of dried fins to his contact in China.

For two hours we sat and discussed the industry. The El Salvadorian fleet consists of about 50 small pangas and 5 larger vessels. Charlie owns the largest shark fishing boat in the country which can carry 14 tons of shark.

I asked Rafael if Charlie also worked with the Asian longliners who ply the 200 mile exclusion zone. “They are pirates” he said, becoming very animated. He described their wasteful practice of finning the sharks and dumping the carcasses. “It is the Taiwanese” he continued “They have no respect for the oceans. All they care about is fins and money”.

Now that we had broached the subject, I asked him directly about the impact of fishing on the local shark stocks. “It is a big problem” he said. “Ten years ago the fishermen would set their lines with 100 hooks. Now they use 400 but they only catch half as many sharks”.

He explained that one reason is the gill netters like Jacobo. Even if the hammerheads make it past the longliners on their way in to shore to give birth, lots of the pups end up in gill nets.

I asked him what he thought they could do about it. “It’s complicated” he said. “We could make a good living in many other fields because we are educated. But if you take away the fishermen’s livelihood, they will starve. This is all they know how to do”.

Rafael continued “We are in favor of regulation if that is what it takes. When the WWF came to us to conduct a study into sea turtle deaths, we gave them all the assistance we could. By redesigning our hooks we cut the turtle bycatch down to almost zero”.

I told him that I had been in contact with the newly formed Central American Shark Coalition. Rafael had not heard of it and he rolled his eyes at the prospect of more interference in his industry. When I mentioned that Carlos Roberto Hasbun was leading the campaign he brightened. He was familiar with Professor Hasbun’s work with sea turtles and obviously had some respect for the man.

Taking a leap, I asked Rafael if he would be prepared to talk to Carlos Roberto, if I could arrange it. With no hesitation, he said that he would be happy to explain the realities of the industry in order to create some practical solutions. This was more than I could possibly have hoped for and I wound up our conversation on less controversial topics.

Rafael dropped me at Alex’s shop just in time for our next engagement. While I was talking with Raphael, Alex had arranged an interview with the national press agency La Prensa Grafica. Jumping into Carlos Roberto’s car the three of us headed over to the newspaper offices where we were met by a reporter who wanted to know all about my hunt for the elusive Mallethead Shark and subsequent explorations into the fin trade. They also questioned Carlos Roberto about his work with the Shark Coalition. Concerned that this interview would do more harm than good, we tried to impress upon the reporter that this was a real chance for progress and that if the story drove a wedge between the environmentalists and the fishermen, the sharks would be the victims.

After the interview I posed for pictures holding up a drawing of the shark that I had been searching for in vain.  The reporter then said that if I eventually found my shark, to please let them do a follow up story. I agreed and we left.

Carlos Roberto, Alex, and I, grabbed a last meal. Exhausted, I returned to my hotel room and packed.

Flying back to Canada I wondered if Carlos Roberto and Charlie Pinto could ever really find a way to work together. Would the sharks in Central America eventually be protected from over fishing or was it already too late? And, would I ever get to return and find the Mallethead Shark? Maybe; with the right people involved, all things are possible.

 

                                             

Alex Hasbun holds up the heart of a Scalloped Hammerhead

Fransisco Coto "El Zambuzi" Thumbs through my shark i.d. guide

Jacobo fisherman and Patron

of Isla Tasajere

 

              

Carlos Pinto "El Hindu" examines the dried caudal fin of a shark.    Photographer Andy Murch with the smiling faces of Isla Tesajera