Sharks can be protected within certain MPA boundaries. But their size and effectiveness is significantly limited.
As of February 2009, there were approximately 5000 MPAs located around the world – although only 0.8 of one percent of the world's oceans are actually included in marine protected areas.
The term MPA is used widely around the globe, but it has several meanings and implications complicating the matter significantly. Additionally it is used interchangeably with terms like Marine Parks, Marine Reserves and Marine Sanctuaries. It is also important to note that the term Marine Protected Area often does not imply that fishing – including shark fishing – is prohibited. Many times, MPAs are created to benefit fisheries management.
In the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest MPA, shark fishing is regulated, licensed and legal – for certain species in certain areas. In South Africa, MPAs are zoned, and activities such as shark fishing are only allowed in certain areas and catch limits for certain species can be imposed. Additionally, some shark species are regionally protected in certain MPAs. In Belize, Marine Reserves allow for fishing within certain areas and in Ecuador, including the Galapagos, certain species are allowed to be caught by the local residents – for certain uses.
The ideal MPA is a full no take area – which typically means it is not allowed to remove anything from the MPA – including sharks. But, many MPAs are either multiple use (meaning there are designated take and no take areas) or seasonal/temporary management in nature, where fishing is restricted seasonally or temporarily to let the local ecosystem recuperate.
Due to restrictions in enforcement (particularly against foreign ships) most of the times, MPAs are limited to locations in territorial waters of coastal states. Rarely, MPAs extend through a country’s exclusive economic zones or even the high seas – where the law of the seas prevail, significantly regulating any one country’s (or even a consortium of countries) ability to enforce restrictions.
A large percentage of the oceans are considered international waters – and not a single entity has jurisdiction over fisheries management in these areas. Making them, essentially, fair game.
Even no take MPAs only protect the animals that dwell within their boundary lines at all time. Many species of sharks are migratory, or live in the open oceans, leaving them virtually impossible to protect via the current MPA model.
Due to the high cost of shark fins, chances are that illegal fishing for sharks is occurring in nearly any Marine Protected Area that has sharks in its water - regardless of its status. Marine Protected Areas are only as good as the political will and also funds required to enforce them. Sadly, many MPAs are under-funded and/or managed by corrupt officials who are quick to turn a blind eye and have no intent of enforcing them.
A large number of foreign vessels operate from Costa Rica – belonging to countries ranging from Taiwan to Spain to Ecuador. Some of these vessels catch sharks from outside Costa Rica's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and then transfer these products at sea. Others fish blatantly within the Marine Reserve of Isla de Cocos, with their vessels landing their catch at secure docks, late at night. And in Galapagos, though many shark finners have been caught, not one has been successfully prosecuted.