Conservationists in Costa Rica have reacted strongly to a court ruling that absolves a woman accused of shark "finning" and orders the compensation of a boat captain connected to the case, saying the judgment effectively serves to legitimize the illicit trade.
In an April 7 ruling, Judge Franklin Lara ordered the Costa Rican government to pay Su Hsien Feng over $6,600 for 652 fins confiscated and destroyed in 2011, after the ship he captained docked in the Pacific Puntarenas port with 332 shark skeletons on board, reported the Tico Times.
The judgment also exonerated the Taiwanese-Costa Rican owner of the fishing operation, Kathy Tseng, who was the first person to face prosecution for so-called shark "spining." This technique involves leaving the fin attached to the shark's spine, rather than removing it completely and tossing the animal back in the water. It takes advantage of a clause in Costa Rican legislation that requires fins to remain "naturally attached" to sharks' bodies, reported the Tico Times.
The judge ruled Tseng's company had remained within the limits of the law because they did not unload or sell the consignment. At the time of the seizure, Tseng claimed the meat had been used as bait and to feed the crew.
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According to conservationists, the ruling will essentially allow shark fin loads to be docked in Costa Rican ports, as long as they are not unloaded, making it effectively impossible to prosecute fishermen caught finning at sea.
Shark fins are a delicacy in Asia that fetch up to $700 per kilo, driving the practice in both Costa Rica and other parts of Latin America, such as Peru. Outcry over the inhumane nature of the trade -- which sees the rest of the animal discarded -- led Costa Rica to ban finning in 2012, but fishermen have continued to exploit legal loopholes, as seen in the present case.
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The continued legal ambiguities surrounding spining were underlined by Tseng's insistence she did nothing wrong because the missing meat was all used. The judge's stance that shark fin shipments only become illegal once they are unloaded also casts doubt over anti-finning operations at sea -- with a large consignment of fins confiscated at sea less than a week before the ruling.
The ruling, if it holds, could tar Costa Rica's reputation as a conservation and eco-tourism hub. In addition to the cruelty of the practice, finning has clear negative implications on shark populations: the Tico Times reports that more than 90 percent of some species have been wiped out over the past 15 years.