Fabiola Santiago

Deadly shark-fin trade from Central America to China is passing through Miami

We demonize sharks for summer thrills in Hollywood movies like “The Meg” — the tale of a prehistoric 75-foot megalodon coming back to terrorize beachgoers, opening this weekend — and, of course, in the classic man- and boat-eating “Jaws.”

But in the real world the shark isn’t the predator.

It’s man — and his insatiable greed and desire to make big bucks despite the impact of his trade on our very existence on Earth.

This is a story about shark fins, an expensive delicacy in China, at peak time being sold on the market for more per pound than heroin.

Like the opioid, consumption and demand are fueling a trade that attracts the lowest forms of humankind: unscrupulous corporations, hidden behind layers of shell companies, operating rogue fishing fleets that are hunting sharks to near extinction.

Their assembly-line fishing methods are cruel. They slice the fin off and throw back the bloody shark to die. For good measure, they staff their enterprises with crews hired through human trafficking networks.

Ground zero for the trade is the Pacific off Central America, where countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica are waging “a war” against these ruffians — and mostly losing, as tens of millions of sharks are being fished every year in faraway deep waters and shipped to China through ports in Latin America with lax laws.

And guess where some of these shipments go through: Miami International Airport.

So, in addition to drugs and prostitution, we now have cartels of the shark-fin trade, a business worth a billion dollars annually, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The industry’s illegal activities are detailed in a two-year investigation supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Columbia Journalism School with the superb reporting from the ground in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador of Miami Herald staff writer Sarah Blaskey.

What can the rest of us do about this issue?

For starters, say no to shark fin soup.

Check out the Animal Welfare Institute’s listing by state of restaurants that offer the dish, a bit dated to 2017 — at least one of the Florida listings had inaccuracies — but a good place to start. In Florida — where waters on both coasts are populated by sharks, among them 26 of the species on no-fishing lists — restaurants in North Miami, Tamarac, West Palm Beach, Tampa and Orlando are listed as offering shark fin soup.

I called some of them — and it didn’t take long to get the vibe that they know selling the soup is a controversial issue.

King Palace Chinese in North Miami lists a “Crabmeat with Shark Fins Soup” ($16.95) and “Chicken with Shark Fins Soup” ($15.95) on its menu, but when I inquired, the worker answering the phones said it was “imitation,” not the real thing.

I asked what made it imitation. The woman said she didn’t know. I asked to speak to the owner. She said he wasn’t there. I identified myself, left my name and number, and the reason for my call, but before I could finish — the moment I said “shark fin fishing” — she hung up. I never got a call back.

They were more polite at the West Palm Beach restaurant Grand Lake Dim Sum, which has shark fin fish soup on its menu at $12 and said Thursday night that they didn’t have any.

A local shark fisherman brings his catch on shore in Manta, Ecuador, at a beach called Playita Mia where buyers come to purchase fins for resale to export companies sending them to Asia. Sarah Blaskey

Unfortunately, Florida isn’t one of the 12 states that have banned possession of shark fins.

Attempts have been made in the Legislature, but they’ve gone nowhere in a state that has been dismantling environmental regulations the last eight years. At the federal level, a bipartisan bill, the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act, is also in the works but Donald Trump’s administration isn’t friendly to environmental initiatives.

To our shame, Florida now ranks as the largest importer of shark fins in the country, according to Oceana, an international conservation group. That’s because, after California and Texas tightened restrictions, the shark fins from Central America started to pass through Miami International Airport on their way to Hong Kong.

It’s almost impossible to know if any of the fins coming through here are from protected species, but a 2017 analysis of shark fin clippings imported to Hong Kong found that a third were, the investigation revealed.

Scientists know that sharks are vital to the marine ecosystem. Healthy oceans cannot exist without them, but their population is in such decline that it’s a race against extinction.

It should be straight-forward common sense: If we can’t live without them, let’s stop killing them.

Sharks are not the enemy. Humans are. And we’re hunting these animals to extinction.

Don’t be fooled by the movies.

In the sharks vs. humans fight, we’re the real enemy.