Whales were an important source of income in the Azores for centuries. Every part of them was used. Seasonally and sustainably caught, they were an important part of the survival of the people on the islands. But the whale population was nearly exterminated worldwide, in the North Atlantic this was primarily caused by American whalers. In 1984, the disaster was recognized in the Azores and whaling was stopped. Today, despite such measures, some whale-populations are yet to entirely recover from the overfishing of that period. Nevertheless, on the Azores a virtue has been made from necessity, and now the islanders earn their money from tourists who flock to the area in order to see local whale populations. With tourism flourishing, a symbiotic relationship between the whales and the inhabitants of the Azores has been established which should ensure the survival of these fascinating marine mammals.
Unfortunately, this success story is currently looking unlikely for another animal family which inhabits the waters around the Azores, the sharks. Even if the people of the Azores stop hunting this traditional food for the islanders, the activities in the port of Horta may irrevocably deplete the local shark populations. The Spanish longlining fleets have taken over the role of the shark hunters and, to avoid the long journey from Newfoundland and the Azores to Vigo, they have found a place for unloading – Horta.
5,000 tons of blue shark and mako shark, and even some swordfish.
This is SHARKPROJECT’s estimation of what the Spanish fleet unloads every year only in the port of Horta. The perceptive observer always encounters the same names: Monxo Segundo, Martinez Quelle, Siempre Juan Luis, Lomba Mauri or Ribel Tercero. If you estimate the loading capacity and the fluctuation of the fleet, 5,000 tons of shark every year is a realistic number for this one port.
Originally, swordfish and marlin were the main catch of the longliners. Sharks were also caught but as unwanted by-catch, and therefore the normally dead animals were just thrown overboard. ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) has been holding statistics on catches of tuna, shark and swordfish in the Atlantic since 1966. According to those, longliner fleets landed 3,560 tons of blue shark in the North Atlantic in 1992 and 10 tons in the South Atlantic in 1993. In 2011 it increased to 73,192 tons, and 66,273 tons of shark in 2016.
How is this possible and why?
The shark had become a substitute for the drastically sinking catches of swordfish and marlin. Of primary interest for fishermen are the sharks’ fins as there is a great demand from Asian markets. While the catches of swordfish have halved since the 1990s, the situation of the Blue and White Marlin is much more dramatic. Here, catches in the Atlantic Ocean in 2016 only reach up to a quarter of those of 1990s, which is not due to reduced fishing, it is actually despite a context of huge strides in fishing technologies which greatly aides locating and catching of such species. As a consequence of these drops in populations of swordfish and marlin, sharks are now hunted in order to make up for these shortfalls. Due to the drastically declined population of mako sharks, the ICCAT advises a zero quota for this species, i.e. a ban on fishing, so that the stocks in the North Atlantic, which are considered to be completely overfished, can recover. The current ICCAT Report states that with a zero quota from 2016, there is a 54% probability that the stocks will recover by 2040, and with a catch of 2,000 tonnes per year in the North Atlantic only a 25% probability. In the South Atlantic, a quota is recommended which is measured by the minimum catches from 2011-2015, i.e. a maximum of 2,000 tonnes, also because the stocks in the North Atlantic have collapsed so worryingly. Currently, from 2012 to 2016 in the North Atlantic between 3400 to 4500t mako shark have been landed and in the entire Atlantic even in 2016 this figure grows to 6000t .
But what would a “zero quota” mean?
It is the same fate of the species already protected by the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES): According to EU law, the animals are not allowed to be landed and, according to the wishful thinking of EU bureaucrats, these fish are released back into the sea alive. But according to ICCAT, 80-88% of sharks already die on the longline before the gear is hauled onto the vessels. A zero quota would be the death sentence for mako shark stocks in the North Atlantic, even if they are protected by CITES. How long should the longlining fleets in the North Atlantic continue their uncontrolled activities without any logbooks to protected species?
When will this stop?
Just like the mako shark, the blue shark is also facing extinction. Although blue sharks reproduce faster and more numerously than mako sharks, they have suffered a merciless fate for years. Every year the fishermen in the Atlantic land around 70,000 tons of blue shark, 98% of which are caught through the use of longlines. And here the waters around the Azores play a key role, as they are the nursery of many shark species, especially the blue sharks. This fact is known by fishermen who consequently look to focus their activities in this area. This affects above all young sharks, who die on longlines before they become sexually mature.
Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, Azores, 29 April 2019. Three giant cruise ships on Atlantic crossing lie in the harbour. The city is overcrowded with American tourists enjoying the shore leave. Thousands of people crowd the harbour promenade, past the centuries-old historical fortress with its military museum. And directly behind it in the harbour is the LOTA, the state auction hall for fish. None of the tourists notice what is happening here. Completely unnoticed by the public, the longline ship MESTRE BOBICHA (VP-204-C) lands from the Portuguese mainland with home port “Vila do Porto”, coming from Hai and Marlin. Once again it is the shark population that must bleed. In a 32t container of the company “Transinsular” Nr TMYU 900054-6 one bundle of sharks is shipped after the next. The Portuguese captain watches as the African and Indonesian crews stow the animals in the container. When asked, people are told that it is primarily Marlin that is landed here. The “by-catch” blue shark is clearly visible, however. Wide nets wrap the bodies to show that the fins are on the body, since 2013 a duty in the EU to avoid “finning”. Here only the fins with a value of 25€ are important. The meat brings max. one Euro per kilo. And this is how the bodies of the animals now look like. The bodies only serve to fulfil the EU directive “fins on the body”. Extremely little meat is still left, the body ends directly before the flippers, headless, eviscerated and up to the anus fins slit open, the expensive fins work grotesquely at this small remainder of cheap meat. With the bodies wrapped with fabric, which are supposed to be marlin, we recognize the body shape of mako sharks. Far and wide there is no state supervisor to be seen whose job it should be to monitor and note whether everything is done within the correct legal framework. Only a few chatting dock workers stand around before disappearing once it begins to rain. This container will find its way unmonitored past the local auction on one of the container ships to Portugal, destination Peniche probably, next to Vigo one of the largest transhipment points for sharks in Europe. Spain and increasingly also Portugal are the two nations that are not only market leaders in the EU. These two nations serve the global fin market with the blue and mako sharks of the Atlantic. 30% of all fins traded worldwide come from Europe. Exactly those blue sharks and mako sharks, which are unloaded in Horta, Vigo, Peniche and Ponta Delgada, form the basis for a worldwide trade, which is destroying our oceans as well as robbing the fishermen on the Azores of their livelihoods. It is precisely these fishermen who fish sustainably with pole and line vessels and who work in an ecologically responsible manner, who, are directly the victims of these longline vessels using the port of Horta.
Back then it was “whale watching”, today “shark watching” could however be a key solution. Since 2010 local diving centres on the Azores offer shark diving. A living shark is worth thousands of euros in tourism, according to worldwide studies. A study by the University of the Azores also proves this for the Azores. If operated sustainably, not only diving centres can benefit. Hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, supermarkets, car rental companies, farmers, suppliers, the entire infrastructure, everyone benefits from it. A living shark is also economically worth far more for the Azores than a dead one.
The Azores, green paradise, blue sea, wonderful nature, sustainable tourism
This is the marketing bubble with which is presented of the Azores but unfortunately does not correspond to reality at all. Around the Azores, the nursery of many, even protected, shark species, are merciless searched for by fishermen. Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets, also longliners of the Azores, fish the sea in the Atlantic mercilessly, comparable with the “gold rush” in old whaling times. At that time people were able to recognize the damage being done and change their behavior before it was too late. Today, as then, there is species protection versus profit and greed, also on the islands, because the port operators and transport companies to the mainland earn a lot of money. But at some point you have to make up your mind. Do these companies gamble away the future of our children and our seas purely for their own greed? It is a crossroads, decisions such as the establishment of a strictly enforced 200 nautical miles protection zone around the Azores, the consequent banning of longline fishing within this zone, as well as a strict EU-wide quota for blue shark and mako shark will be necessary to avert both an ecological as well as ultimately humanitarian disaster.
Just like 1984, the Azores has the opportunity to lead the way for the whole world!