Shark Fishers Try to Reel in Cash, Turn to Conservation

Lorne Matalon
for National Geographic News
September 30, 2008

Israel Ritchie, known as Tolon, is a 37-year-old shark fisher from López Mateos, Mexico. His family has hunted sharks off the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula for generations, selling the meat these days for around U.S. 70 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and the shark fins for 50 to 100 U.S. dollars a kilogram.

But relying on shark for an income puts Tolon in a precarious place.

"Our situation is drastic," Tolon said. "The shark population has fallen sharply in the last ten years. Now I must travel farther offshore to find them."

Tolon has been forced to think of ways to make his craft—and career—more sustainable, increasingly relying on organizations such as Iemanya Oceanica, a U.S.-Mexican nonprofit that is working with 12 Mexican fishing communities to help them find long-term economic security.

Iemanya Oceanica is advising Tolon and other fishers to partially transform their fish-based economies and to start thinking of shark-based ecotourism as a way to make money and preserve stocks for limited fishing.

Many fishers are already making plans to convert their 22-foot (6.7-meter) boats, known as pangas, into sport-fishing vessels that tourists will board for catch-and-release fishing trips or diving expeditions to observe sharks firsthand, Tolon said.

(Related: "'Monster' Lake's Rare Giants Lure Anglers, Biologists" [July 15, 2008].)

Sharp Declines

Some researchers believe shark stocks have declined worldwide by 75 percent since the late 1980s, triggered, in part, by Asia's appetite for shark fin soup.

(Related: "38 Million Sharks Killed for Fins Annually, Experts Estimate" [October 12, 2006].)

An increased demand for fins—combined with the depletion of other commercially fished species, such as cod, tuna, and swordfish—has changed sharks from an unwanted bycatch into a valuable target species, according to experts.

Tolon's catch is sent to Mexico City, where wholesalers sell the meat to food vendors, who in turn sell shark burritos for about a dollar each.

Continued on Next Page >>


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