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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

Slaughter of Sharks for Fins Cuts Deep With Schoolkids

May 26, 2000|PETE THOMAS

Shark-fin soup will never be their cup of tea.

To the contrary, fifth-graders at Nora Sterry Elementary School in Los Angeles think something is very fishy about the way the top-level predators are being treated these days.

The children seem fully aware that sharks are not the vicious, cold-blooded killers they've been portrayed to be for so many years. They realize that sharks are vital members of the ocean's ecosystems, kill only for food, are slow to reproduce and, thus, are highly vulnerable to overfishing.

As for amputating their fins and throwing the animals overboard to die a slow and cruel death, the kids have no taste for that.

They made this quite clear this week in a series of letters they're sending to Mexican government officials "to protest about the poachers killing life from the ocean."

The letter-writing campaign was prompted by last week's column describing the illegal actions of commercial fishermen using gill-nets in the protected waters of the Mexico's remote Revillagigedo Islands.

The four-island archipelago, more than 200 miles southwest of Baja California and more than 350 miles from mainland Mexico, was federally protected as a "biosphere reserve" in 1994 because of its uniqueness and fragility.

Witnesses say the commercial fishermen, carrying permits to fish for sharks but not within 12 miles of the islands, netted more than 2,000 sharks during at least a four-day spree aboard several Mexican-flagged boats. The sharks had their fins removed--for sale in Asian markets--and at least some fin-less animals were tossed overboard alive.

The poachers also killed sea turtles and at least one giant Pacific manta. Photographs of sea creatures struggling and dying in the nets were taken by noted free-diver Terry Maas, who has an impressive display that might interest schoolchildren everywhere (especially those with a taste for shark-fin soup) on his Web site at http://www.freedive.net.

The number of sharks killed was disputed by Mexico's environmental secretary, who promised nonetheless to keep a closer eye on the islands and to pursue prosecution of the fishermen.

In one of the letters, Kalyn Robinson and Efrain Santiago expressed, "The article made us feel sad, mad, frustrated, disappointed, bad, sorry, and almost made us cry. We feel this way because sharks are part of ocean life and they are going to be extinct.

"How would you feel if you went scuba diving or swimming one day and you got caught in a net and then a man cut off your legs and threw you into the ocean and you couldn't swim without your legs and you would drown and die on the ocean floor?"

In another, Audelina Miguel and Jorge Ramirez reasoned that "sharks are living creatures like us" and suggested that Mexico prevent future raids on the Revillagigedos "by charging a $1-million fine" for poachers caught in the act.

Valerie Lozano wrote, "I felt like crying when I read that article, it's so sad. Sharks don't deserve what those poachers did. I can't believe someone would do that. How about cutting their arms off and see how they like it.

"I think there should be more patrol guards out there so it won't happen again. It should be very safe for the sea animals. Please use the guards. I want you to take care of the animals in that area. I want you to make sure it never happens again!"

That's asking a lot, of course. But it's refreshing to see that the "Jaws" mentality is fading from the minds of children. And the letters to Mexico surely couldn't hurt.

As for shark-fin soup, it must be pretty good. Dried fins are worth up to $40 a pound in Asian markets. Thus, the catching of sharks solely for their fins has become as lucrative as it is controversial.

Fortunately, the movement to curb the practice, in U.S. waters anyway, is gaining momentum. The landing of amputated fins is already banned along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and California coasts, and legislation is moving forward to prohibit it in Hawaii, where last year 34 tons of shark fins were brought in by the long-line fleet.

WHALE WATCHING

Nobody does whale watching like the Condor out of Santa Barbara's Sea Landing, and its season began with a splash a few weeks ago as a killer whale munched a harbor seal in full view of the passengers.

Since then, the boat has been amid blue whales (sporadically, as it's early yet), humpback whales and other marine creatures.

Bernardo Alps, president of the American Cetacean Society's Los Angeles chapter, was aboard Wednesday and reported seeing 14 humpbacks that were breaching, lunge-feeding and basically hamming it up before all the camera flashes.

ACS-LA has trips scheduled June 24 and July 22. Details: (310) 519-8963. Sea Landing can be reached at (805) 963-3564.

SALTWATER FISHING

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