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RIO DE JANEIRO
A Brazilian environmental group sued a fish exporter for $790 million Monday, alleging the firm has illegally sold the fins from 280,000 sharks since 2009 to meet demand in Asia where they are a culinary delicacy.
In Brazil, it is illegal to separate shark fins from the carcasses, and in May government agents reported finding 3.3 tons of shark fins during a single raid on the company sued by the Environmental Justice Institute.
Cristiano Pacheco, director of the environmental group, said records of the Environmental Ministry's enforcement agency indicate the exporter Sigel do Brasil Comercio illegally took a total of 25 tons of shark fins since 2009.
"This is an extremely serious situation and represents only a fraction of the sharks that are illegally killed off Brazil's northeast coast," Pacheco said. "The massive and illegal fishing is doing irreversible harm to the ocean's ecosystem, because sharks are at the top of the food chain."
Globally, the issue of protecting sharks has taken on more urgency due to a jump in demand for shark fin soup in China as increasing numbers of families move into the middle class. The soup has long played a central part in Chinese culture, often served at weddings and banquets.
At a United Nation's summit on high seas fishing in May, Palau Ambassador Stuart Beck said his South Pacific nation hoped to prevent the killing of 73 million sharks a year for their fins. Last year, Palau announced the creation of the world's first shark sanctuary to protect more than 130 species fighting extinction.
Also in May, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to pass legislation banning the possession of shark fins.
Pacheco's group filed its suit against Sigel do Brasil Comercio in a federal court in the Amazon jungle city of Belem, where the company is located.
A woman who answered a phone at the company said it had no comment. She declined to give her name.
The suit asks $790 million in damages. If the suit is successful, any money awarded by the court would go to Brazil's national environmental fund, while the Environmental Justice Institute would have its legal fees paid.
The Environment Ministry's enforcement agency said that its May raid on Sigel do Brasil Comercio found only separated fins and that the company had no documentation to explain their origin.
Brazilian companies are required to report how many sharks they fish, when they are captured and where.
Additionally, the agency said the company had a license to export only 1 ton of fish products a month.
According to the agency, shark fins can bring as much as $45 per kilo ($20.45 per pound) to Brazilian exporters, making it much more lucrative than selling the flesh of fish.
"The illegal fishing of sharks is immense in Brazil and little is being done to stop it," Pacheco said. "Everybody knows about protecting the rain forest and global climate change, but fewer know about the dangers to fauna in Brazil."