Undercover Shark Market Monitoring

We do monitor the shark bycatch at the morning fish market, but it's not really undercover. All the fishermen know what we're up to. But I've heard the fisherman used to be a lot more friendly about the counting and measuring before the new bycatch regulations and penalties started popping up due to our data.

The fish market is held right there on the beach.

The frigatebirds steal fish out of the buckets the fisherman carry on their heads.

Some frigatebirds don't wait until the fish is brought to land to steal their fill.

The harbor at Puerto Lopez is a small city of boats.

The fish are prepared right away by one of the fillet women.

These ladies are skilled with a knife and and tough as nails.

A pair of volunteers visits the shark market every morning, Monday through Saturday. (The market is closed on Sundays.) It's a bustling place, located directly on the sandy beach between the road and the ocean. When the tide is high, water laps around the table legs and the fish vendors' shoes.

The market draws all types of people, from the discerning French woman who owns a restaurant to haggling businessmen holding a cellphone to each ear. There is always one poised, older Ecuadorian woman in a floral skirt-suit who effortlessly commands the respect of everyone in sight. She walks through the muddy, bloody water in her pumps without batting an eye, and walks out of the market with exactly the fish she came to purchase.

Dorado, or dolphinfish, is the staple of the market.

You can also find more exotic seafood like octopus and squid.

Whatever kind of fish these were, a lot of them were gravid with eggs.

Our job at the fish market is to record the number, species, and sex of sharks brought in by fishermen. It's illegal to catch sharks purposefully, but a certain amount of bycatch is legal. Like many laws in Ecuador, this one doesn't do much in practice. If a fisherman catches more than his quota of sharks, the fine is $1 per shark. We're not there to report violations or enforce the law -- we're just trying to collect data.

Sharks are finned as soon as they hit the sand.

I was astounded by how quickly a shark is reduced to its core body.

A bucket of shark heads.
Stray dogs lick the blood and carcasses for a morning treat.

There are six main species of shark which show up at the fish market: two hammerheads, two threshers, the angelote and the vieja. Occasionally, though, we get a surprise.

This species is called "angelote" because it looks like an angel.

One of the two thresher species, either Alopias superciliosus or A. pelagicus.

One of the two hammerhead species, either Sphyma zygaena or S. lewini.

This would be considered a surprise -- a tiger shark! Photo credit: Consue Vanessa Arboleda. 

You can buy more than just fish at the fish market -- there are vendors selling snacks, cookies, fruit, sunglasses, and even entire meals. A couple full-fledged restaurants in tents appear each  morning. I tried the breakfast one day and found it identical to the lunch: a heaping pile of rice, a slab of fresh fish in juice, and a couple slices of ripe fried plantain. I think I prefer that menu after noon!

A shopping cart of cold crunchy grapes and blocks of ice.

Vendors place scallions, apples, and assorted groceries on tarps alongside the catch-of-the-day.


  1. Wow, talk abut fresh! Reminds me of the fish market in Puerto Ayora with the frigatebirds and pelicans and gulls soaring and stealing. Is this where you got shark heads on which to practice your dissection skills?

    Very interesting about the shark bycatch. Do the sharks bring in a lot of income for the fishermen? For food for locals, or shark fins to export to Asia?

  2. I only had sole heads to practice my dissection skills on, but I did get those here. I'm going to keep my eye out for a hammerhead to practice on, though! I'll ask Carolina about how much the sharks are worth to the fishermen and what they're used for.

  3. Edit -- they weren't sole heads, they were glasseye heads.

    I asked Caro and Luis about the value of sharks to the fishermen. They explained that a shark can be worth anything from $5 to $500 depending on its size. The fins are usually sold to China. The meat is sold in Ecuador and Peru as a different kind of fish, like corvina or tuna, since most customers don't like the idea of shark meat. (Caro wasn't sure whether it's illegal to sell shark meat, or just culturally unacceptable.) There is also a fish-meal factory in the neighboring town of Salango which grinds up shark meat for chicken and pig feed, but fishermen don't get much money from that. Hope that helps!

  4. Wow ...thresher, tiger, hammerhead. It always bothers me to see so much bycatch, especially top predators like sharks.

    Dissecting a shark head would be cool. Make sure the mouth doesn't close reflexively! I once saw a video of a guy putting his hand in the mouth of a shark that he caught ...much hilarity and stitches ensued.


Post a Comment