SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica—On February 7th, a Costa Rican judge delivered the country’s first-ever prison sentence for illegal trade in shark fins.
After a lengthy judicial battle, a Taiwanese-born businesswoman was sentenced to serve six months of jail time over a fishing-haul of 652 shark fins detached from the animals’ bodies, a practice commonly known as shark finning.
The case, however, had a nasty twist.
Tied up in small packages each about 30 inches long, the “sharks” that customs and fishing officials retrieved from the cold stores onboard the fishing boat Wang Jia Men 88 in 2011 bore little resemblance to actual animals.
“They were folded and laced with string, almost like a birthday present,” testified one of the officials who was present at the landing dock, according to court documents.
As officials opened the frozen bundles and stretched their content on the fishing dock in the western port city of Puntarenas, the scene turned from baffling to gruesome. Most of the flesh had been carved out and only a bloody spine gave a vague resemblance of a shark.
The fins, the most valued part of the animal if you know the right buyer, were barely attached by small strips of skin. Officials counted 151 spines. Shark fins are used primarily for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, and are one of the most expensive seafood products in the world.
The Asian-born crew members, none of whom spoke Spanish and required translation from the ship’s owner, likely wanted to bypass a 2005 Costa Rican law against shark finning—which states fins must arrive to port naturally attached to the bodies—by claiming there was no artificial mechanism keeping them in place.
Finning is by no means a new phenomenon. As global demand increased in the late 20th century and storage space on boats was outpaced, fishermen around the world began slashing the fins and dumping the sharks back into the ocean to die.
This way they maximized revenue by only keeping the most profitable part of the animal, but at the same time they savaged populations.
“If ships only carry fins, many more sharks will die as fishermen can pack more in the same storage space,” explained Erick Ross, Science Manager at Marviva Foundation, a leading marine conservation NGO in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
But the spine-plus-fins bundle was a novelty. The case was so unusual that it prompted Interpol to alert its 190 member countries of the modus operandi in 2013.
Despite the efforts to mask the crime, judge Simón Angulo saw through them and sentenced the ship’s owner Hue Ju Tseng Chang, 36, to serve jail time.
Environmental lawyers and conservationists are lauding the case as an inflection point in the Central American republic’s quest to eradicate this industry.
“To reach a point where there’s an actual criminal sanction reflects the growing concern in Costa Rica,” said Marco Quesada, country director for Conservation International, a global environmental organization.
For years, finning had given the famously green country a bad reputation towards its marine policies, even resulting in a Shark Enemy Award for then-President Abel Pacheco in 2005.
British chef Gordon Ramsay claims he was held at gunpoint in 2011 by the Taiwanese mafia that allegedly controlled the industry while filming a documentary in Puntarenas.
In 2012, then Waters and Oceans Vice Minister José Lino Chaves estimated that up to 400,000 sharks were caught for their fins the previous year.
In recent years, however, the country has worked to overcome its shortcomings, say Quesada and Ross, as a result of public opinion crying foul over the decimation of sharks.
A decree introduced in 2012 ordered the international fleet to unload on state-owned docks under official supervision, rather than on private facilities as foreign ships had previously done.
For that, President Laura Chinchilla received in 2013 a Shark-Guardian award by the same organization that had chastised the country years before.
As a Belize-flagged vessel, the Wang Jia Men 88 had to allow this inspection. After a tip from an association of traditional fishermen, officials doubled their search and found the frozen bundles.
Environmentalists and lawmakers around the world have worked to dwindle the practice and new prohibitions have gradually emerged, so industry members have resorted to gray areas and loopholes.
In 2002, for instance, the United States seized a record 64,695 pounds of shark fins from the King Diamond II, a U.S.-flagged, Hong Kong-based vessel bound for Guatemala.
However, an appeals court decided in 2008 that the government had no right to seize the fins and had to give them back to their owners (as a side note, the case had the perplexing name of US v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins).
The judges argued that the boat wasn’t exactly a fishing vessel, since it had purchased the fins and not actually caught the sharks to which they belonged to, so the current law couldn’t apply. The 2011 Shark Conservation Act closed those loopholes.
In the Wang Jia Men 88 case, a judge ruled in favor of the businesswoman in a 2014 ruling, saying that she didn’t order the fins to be unloaded (the technical illegality in Costa Rica), but public prosecutors rebutted the decision and obtained a second trial, which sentenced her.
Now Tseng Chang can file an appeal of her own within two weeks after the ruling, but environmentalists are seeing the case’s significance beyond Costa Rican courts.
“This creates an international precedent,” said Conservation International’s Quesada.
The legal tricks aren’t the sole dominion of the fishing industry. Iconic cases can serve as models for judicial processes in other countries, said Gladys Martínez, senior attorney with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA).
Along with Conservation International, her organization surgically chose the case and helped the prosecutor's office argue before judge Angulo, hoping that a favorable result might be “borrowed” by attorneys and judges in other nations with similar international commitments.
Martínez mentioned a 2005 Costa Rican rulings on leatherback turtles that later helped argue similar cases in courts in Mexico and Panama.
“If we achieve a progressive ruling, it can serve as precedent for shark finning cases in other countries,” she said.
Despite the legal progress, it’s still permitted to sell shark fins if they arrive to port naturally attached to the animals. Here and around the world, overfishing has caused a steep decline in shark populations and their slow growth and reproduction rate worry environmentalists.
“Even if fishing stopped now, their populations would need years to bounce back,” said Marviva’s Ross.