So where did the sharks go? To Asia — in the worst possible way. In China, shark fin soup is as important for weddings as diamond rings and champagne in the United States. Once a sign of wealth, shark fins are now ubiquitous at any important event; the Japanese put them into sushi, cookies and even food for cats.
As Asia grows wealthier, so does its fin demand. From 1985 through 1998, imports to Hong Kong surged, and the worldwide trade leapt more than 214 percent. During that time, the La Paz area became a hub for soup-bound shark fishing, especially hammerheads, which fishermen say have especially large fins.
At prices in the hundreds of dollars per pound in Hong Kong markets, shark fins are among the world’s most expensive ingredients. One study estimates global trade at about half a billion dollars and 73 million sharks per year — a shocking haul. Shark fins are even illegally smuggled as part of organized crime.
“Anyone who has spent time on the ocean over the last 20 or 30 years will tell you that they used to see lots of sharks and that they don’t anymore,” says Boris Worm, a marine conservation biologist and leading expert in shark populations at Dalhousie University in Canada.
Wide swaths of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean are now nearly shark-free. At St. Paul’s Rocks, about 600 miles off the coast of Brazil, Charles Darwin described teeming masses of reef sharks during a stopover on his famous voyage. By 2011, scientists declared the Galapagos reef shark locally extinct.
That’s where research comes in. Chapple, Ketchum and Hoyos believe that if the movements of sharks can be understood well enough, governments like Mexico can design and enforce marine protected areas (MPAs) for crucial aggregating and feeding to take place.
“I started out just being interested in science,” says Chapple, who grew up in the Midwest near the shores of Lake Erie. “I wanted to go out and watch fish swim around. But we’ve gotten past the point where we can be naturalists. Now our only hope is to seriously protect them.”
Ocean scientists debate over the efficacy of MPAs when it comes to migratory species, like hammerheads, with a range too large to ever protect in full. A narrower, more achievable goal would be mapping out their annual ranges to identify key breeding areas, like El Bajo once was, and conserving those.
“If you want to protect a species, you identify an area where they congregate — the hot spots,” says Mike Carr, a biologist at UC Santa Cruz and an MPA expert. “You don’t have to protect the whole [ocean], just those particular locations where we know they aggregate to spawn.”
That’s exactly what Klimley’s heirs hope to do, and the Mexican government has given signs that it is eager to protect its dwindling ocean life. Last year it enraged local fishing communities with a sudden effort to enforce a decades-old law protecting sharks in Baja during the summer, theoretically a prime breeding time.
It’s the first serious move in years by Mexico to protect hammerheads. And just this March, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban undocumented sales of several hammerhead species, threatening to sanction countries that don’t comply.