As I noted back in July, global shark populations face a grave and growing threat. As fishermen overfish sharks for their fins and meat, as many as 63 million to 273 million of the endangered species are killed each year.
Normally, there are no repercussions for this activity.
But occasionally that changes. And in that vein, we should welcome the recent decision by an Ecuadorean court to fine and imprison 20 Chinese fishermen for illegal shark fishing near the Galapagos islands. Some might say this criminal penalty is unfair, but I disagree. After all, the convicted fishermen had 6,000 sharks in their hold and had been operating in a protected marine environment.
Moreover, they're just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to China's widespread and exceptionally aggressive campaign of shark-focused fishing.
China, of course, denies that its citizens are acting improperly. On Tuesday, a foreign ministry spokeswoman claimed that her government respects international fishing laws, stating that China "opposes all forms of illegal fishing and adopts a zero-tolerance attitude towards illegal trading in endangered wildlife and the products derived from them. We will not condone illegal fishing in any form." Still, in a typical Chinese government denial of reality, the spokeswoman added that "there has been no evidence proving that the vessel was engaged in fishing and transporting in the Ecuadorian waters."
China knows this to be true, but it also knows that there is little international appetite to challenge its shark holocaust.
In turn, that brings us back to the central shark overfishing problem: China's utter disregard for the ecological disaster it is perpetuating. China speaks an OK game, but considering its deployment of a vast fishing fleet operating across the world's oceans, its rhetoric is defied by reality. And so, as long as China is able to escape sustained penalties for its activities, it will continue to harvest sharks at an unsustainable rate. It's an issue of basic economics: The Chinese domestic demand for shark products is only increasing, and so the profitability of supply is following in its wake.
Sadly, court judgments such as that in Ecuador will remain too few and far between to make a difference.