Latin America Turns to iPhone App to Take Hammerhead Sharks Off the Chopping Block

The 400-pound hammerhead shark, hunting through the waters of Latin America, first marked its territory 400 million years ago. Now, the process of “finning”  — chucking their bodies seaward after sawing off their pricy fins — threatens to wipe them off the map.

Countries across Latin America are on a mission to wrangle them onto the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) list for protection. They’re armed with a new iPhone app that promises to make fin identification  — previously a roadblock to protecting the prehistoric predator  — quick and easy.

“Basically, you push a button. It asks a question. You look at the phone, and you say, ‘Does it have a big white patch on there?’ You click ‘yes,’ and it just guides you through, and at the end it tells you the answer to what it is,” explained Demian Chapman, a marine biologist with PEW Charitable Trust's shark-saving campaign. He streamlined his shark fin research from a stack of paper into an all-inclusive icon, tentatively titled “shark fin soup.”

Cites tussled with the idea of putting three hammerhead sharks — scalloped, great and smooth  — along with the oceanic whitetip and spiny dogfish on their endangered species list in 2010. They rejected all but the porbeagle shark, pointing out that regulators have to be able to tell fins of different species apart to enforce the law, previously thought to be an impossible task. Listing the sharks at the March 2013 meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, would help fund financially strapped programs in Latin America and restrict global trade.

Defenders of Wildlife, an animal advocacy group, blogged:

Being listed under CITES would mean that international trade in the fins and other parts of sharks would be closely monitored and regulated to make sure that the species would not be threatened with extinction. Given that one of the largest threats to the species is due to trade, regulation could make a huge difference.

Inspiration for the app first struck Chapman from Chinese fin traders. They easily rattle off names for each shark’s fin and fork over a different value for each one.

“If Chinese traders can tell the sharks apart, so can customs workers and other enforcement. We found that it is very easy to train people to do what the Chinese traders do,” said Chapman.

Hammerhead shark, Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Image from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Hammerhead shark, Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Image from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Tens of millions of sharks end up in shark fin soup each year, according to Oceana, a marine conservation group. Diners prefer the larger hammerhead fins, chalked full of a key soup ingredient called fin needles.

Thanks to their beefy fins, hammerhead numbers plummeted 80 percent in some regions.

In Panama, hammerheads swim to shore to give birth, making them easier prey than deep sea fish for smaller boats. As a result, 96 percent of cleaved fins belong to sharks too young to have reproduced, according to MarViva, an organization that helps enforce fishing laws in Central and South America.

Chapman flew to Latin America, where the fin trade is booming, to collect samples. He has gathered, photographed and analyzed over 1000 fins from more than 40 shark species around the world. His team crossed referenced their findings with DNA samples to ensure accuracy.

They transformed their research into an app, currently formatted for the iPhone with future designs to make it available across the board for smartphones.

Every shark on the app sports unique characteristics on their dorsal fins.

“The oceanic whitetip, as its name implies, has this massive white patch, which is very distinctive on the top of its dorsal fin. The porbeagle actually has a similar white patch, but it’s on the lower edge of the fin,” said Chapman.

Questions flash: “Is it a shark fin? Are the edges black or white? The questions are very specific… We make decisions based on those answers, that’s what computers are really good at,” said George Mandala, the app developer.

Untrained law enforcement will sort through fins with enough knowledge in hand to spot a red flag, allowing for further testing to find out if a fin belongs to an endangered species.

“These guys are not marine biologists. This boils it down for them to really quickly be able to say yes or no,” said Mandala.

Scientists will verify and answer questions through an email feature.

“We can agree or disagree and give you pointers on things to look for,” said Chapman. “What we’re really interested in is taking away the ability of people to break the law and just slip fins through with enforcement not being able to know what they are looking for.”

The app intrigued other endangered species groups, who struggle with authorities catching endangered animals being traded, Mandala said.

“From a computer programming standpoint, a question is a question, so if they wanted to do it for elephants, or lions, or tigers, or whatever, it could be retrofitted to that.”

Scientists lack data about migratory patterns and exactly how many fins make it to market. The app, currently available in English, French and Spanish, will send key information that will help collect statistics: fin photos, location and a description.

Latin America launches hammerhead rescue effort

In Latin America, Honduras first petitioned that the three species of hammerhead join the Cites list. Costa Rica and Brazil immediately signed on, followed by Colombia, Mexico and Ecuador.

Although Panama voiced support, the Defenders of Wildlife launched their “Ask Panamá to Support Shark Conservation” campaign to turn up the pressure on the Panamanian government to support the predator at the Cites meeting next week.

The petition reads:

Panamá may cast the decisive vote on these critical proposals…This is a critical opportunity to put badly-needed controls in place to halt the rapid decline of these top predators.

MarViva and other shark advocacy groups promoted the campaign through Twitter and Facebook. So far, it has 17,808 signatures.

Latin America leads hammerhead protection, according to Sean Juan Posada from Mar Viva.

Last year, the president of Honduras outlawed shark fishing entirely. Honduras hosted its neighbors at a conference to raise awareness and rally shark support in October, where Posada and representatives from Latin American nations first laid their eyes on the identification app.

Overcoming the hurdles to convince Cites to list the sharks, he said, will open up the funding needed to get them protected.

“Getting support from authorities is our biggest challenge. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have boats, or people to cover extensive areas,” Mr. Posada said. “They have laws, but the ability to enforce the law is lacking.”

Chapman said he’s “very interested in making sure there are still sharks around for me to study for people to swim with for tourism and to fulfill their ecological role. They need protection and they need someone to speak up for them.”


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