Sinking hope of justice as exporter of 26-ton shark fin cargo gets token fine

  • In July 2020, Ecuadoran company FishChoez & Villegas S.A. applied belatedly to the fisheries ministry for a permit to export fins from protected shark species.
  • The request raised suspicion among Ecuadoran authorities as the shipment had already been sent to Hong Kong some seven months earlier.
  • A review of the documentation showed the cargo matched the 26 tons of fins seized in April of the same year by Hong Kong customs officers.
  • Environmental and fisheries lawyers say it appears likely there will be no accountability in Ecuador for the massive trafficking attempt, with the exporter fined less than $4,000 — just 0.3% of the cargo’s estimated value of $1.1 million.

In April 2020, customs officers in Hong Kong made one of the largest seizures of shark fins in history: 26 metric tons, all of it exported from Ecuador. This number represents an estimated 38,500 sharks, all of which were classed as threatened species.

The discovery caused global outrage and prompted condemnation by the Ecuadoran government. Yet, 17 months later, no criminal charges have been brought against those responsible. Experts and environmental organizations say this example of wildlife smuggling — the world’s fourth-largest illegal business, surpassed only by the trafficking of drugs, people and counterfeit goods — will go unpunished.

In June, Ecuador’s fisheries ministry announced that it had fined the individual listed as the exporter $3,870 — barely 0.3% of the cargo’s estimated value of $1.1 million. However, it has since been revealed that the exporter is just one piece of a complex puzzle.

Mongabay Latam obtained information gathered by the Ministry of Environment and Water (MAAE) while investigating the case in 2020, which was later made available to prosecutors. These reports bring to light some surprising information: According to the documents and officials working within the ministry at the time, Ecuadoran company FishChoez & Villegas S.A. had requested a permit from local environmental authorities to export a shipment matching the one seized in Hong Kong.

The shipment of 26 tons of shark fins that was seized in Hong Kong in early May 2020. Image by HK Customs.

Company in the spotlight

The two containers left Ecuador and arrived in Hong Kong in January 2020. They remained in a warehouse until April 30, when customs officials discovered the contents of the first shipment, and the second one four days later. Customs inspectors became suspicious upon noticing that the two declarations prepared by the exporter said “pescado seco” in Spanish, rather than the usual “dried fish” in English.

Inside bags stacked within the containers, they found thousands of dried fins from thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus) and silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis), species that are both listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Trade in both species is also strictly regulated under CITES, the global wildlife trade convention, which requires an export permit issued by CITES in their country of origin, in this case Ecuador.

News of the discovery spread quickly around the world, and talks between Ecuador and China began as the countries sought to find those responsible.

The environment ministry launched an investigation in May 2020 to gather intelligence, mainly from the customs service and the fisheries ministry, in an attempt to piece together the events that led to the export of the fins.

Three months later, in August 2020, MAAE issued a memorandum outlining the progress it had made and the information it had been able to gather. This document was shared with the parliamentary commission on biodiversity, which was also investigating the case despite “many stumbling blocks … especially at the beginning,” according to former parliamentarian Juan Cárdenas. There was “a sort of inertia to leave things as they were,” he said. Mongabay Latam has seen this memorandum, which includes the revelation that Ecuador’s environmental authorities received a request — on July 1, 2020, three months after the seizure — for the export of a cargo that matched the one seized in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.

The memorandum states that, in this export request, FishChoez & Villegas S.A.’s lawyer, Humboldt Cañizares Garcés, asked the CITES Management Authority, a part of MAAE, to authorize the export of three containers of “dried fish including shark fins.” Officials were surprised to learn that the request was lodged months after the goods were shipped.

Environmental lawyer Andrés Delgado says that CITES permits must be processed before an export takes place. César Ipenza, a lawyer in neighboring Peru, agrees that this is a requirement for CITES-regulated species. The process in this case would have required Ecuador to carry out a study known as a non-detriment finding, essentially assessing how many individuals from a species’ population can be harvested without endangering the whole population. Based on these results, “the state assigns an export quota,” Ipenza says. To ensure this quota isn’t exceeded, authorities need to know what, and how much, is intended to be traded before the transaction takes place.

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