13 wrong things about sharks that conservation advocates should stop saying in 2013 (and what they should say instead)

davesquare

While the rest of the scientific and management community and I are grateful for the passionate support of many shark conservation advocates, passion is no substitute for knowledge and accuracy.  Some conservation issues are a matter of opinion and can (and should) be reasonably be discussed by people with different views, but many others are a matter of fact. Presented here, in no particular order, are 13  incorrect statements and arguments commonly made by well-intentioned but uninformed shark conservation advocates, along with the reality of the situation.

From MemeGenerator.net

From MemeGenerator.net

1) “Shark finning” is synonymous and interchangeable with “the global shark fin trade.” Shark finning is a specific fishing method. It is not the only way to catch sharks, and it is not the only way to provide shark fins for the global fin trade. Stopping shark finning is a worthy goal (that has largely been accomplished already *) because it is a wasteful and brutal fishing method that complicates management, but stopping shark finning does not stop the global shark fin trade. Many people calling for a ban on finning really seem to want no shark fishing and no fin trade of any kind (a viewpoint I disagree with, but regardless, proper terminology matters). For more on the difference between shark fishing and shark finning, see this post from June 2012.

2) 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins. The origin of this number is still debated, but it was popularized by Sharkwater. While we will likely never know exactly how many sharks are “killed for their fins”, the best scientific estimate of the scope of the fin trade we have comes from a 2006 paper by Dr. Shelley Clarke. She found that the fins of between 26 and 73 million sharks end up in the fin trade each year, with a simulation average of 38 million.  Dr. Clarke wrote an essay for SeaWeb on the misuse of her work, which is worth a read.

3) 1 in 3 species of sharks face extinction. This one is actually relatively close to accurate, and can be fixed with the addition of just two words. An IUCN Shark Specialist Group report found that 1 in 3 species of “open ocean” sharks are Threatened with extinction (Threatened means Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered according to IUCN Red List standards). 1 in 6 species of shark, skate, ray, or chimera are Threatened- while still a troubling number indicative of a very bad situation, it’s half as bad as claimed by many advocates. Also, please note that I included skates and rays, which are similarly threatened but often ignored by conservation advocates (with one notable exception from 2012).

4) Many species of sharks have declined in population by 90% or more. There can be little doubt that shark populations are declining, as severe and rapid declines in shark populations have been observed using fishery-dependent and fishery-independent methods all over the world. Some of these reported declines have, in fact, reached or exceeded 90%. However, the scope of each study is somewhat limited. It is certainly correct to say that “in some parts of their range, scientists have reported declines of 90% or more”, but that doesn’t mean they have declined equally worldwide. For more on this, see my blog post from April 2012.

5) 90% of all sharks are gone. A 2003 paper by Dr.s Ransom Myers and Boris Worm estimated that approximately 10% of the original biomass of “large predatory fishes” (including sharks, swordfish, tuna, etc.) remains after decades of industrial overfishing. This is not the same thing as saying that 90% of sharks are gone.

6) Sharks are an endangered species. Sharks are not a species. There are approximately 500 species of sharks. Some of them are Endangered (by IUCN Red List standards), most of them are not. As of this writing, no sharks have legal protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but two petitions (scalloped hammerheads and great whites) are currently being considered. Two species of sawfish (large and small tooth) are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

7) Anything that helps sharks at all is a good thing and should be supported. This often came up in discussions of the efficacy of certain policy measures, and is both simplistic and wrong. Some conservation policy tools explicitly prevent the adoption of others that might be more effective. For example, you cannot promote sustainable shark fishing while banning all shark fishing. We can and should have an open and fact-based discussion about which tools are the most effective and appropriate for saving sharks.

8 ) “At least they’re doing something about the problem.” If what you’re doing to try to help makes it more difficult for others to implement a better solution, that is not something to be commended.

9) The only solution to the problem is shark fin bans. This is rarely said explicitly, but commonly said implicitly by advocates and organizations focusing almost entirely on fin bans. Regardless of your views on fin bans, they are far from the only tool out there. Many other policies that can help sharks (reducing fishing quotas to conform with the best available scientific advice, bycatch reduction plans, species-specific harvest restrictions, etc.) would benefit from the passion of shark conservationists, but are rarely (if ever) given anywhere near the same level of attention and energy.

10) Fisheries management has been tried for sharks and doesn’t work. Most of the shark declines in U.S. waters occurred before the 1994 adoption of the Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Sharks. Since that time, populations of many species have started to increase (slowly, but surely). In recent years, Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have made great strides towards reducing shark bycatch and protecting threatened species. The places where shark populations continue to decline are largely places without effective fisheries management plans or “National Plans of Action for Sharks” in place. This is not a coincidence. Properly designed, implemented, and enforced fisheries management plans can and do work for sharks.

11) A sustainable fishery for sharks is impossible. While the relatively slow growth, late age-of-maturity, and low fecundity of many shark species means that they cannot support fisheries of the same scale as bony fish, it certainly does not mean that we can’t ever have a sustainable shark fishery. A sustainable fishery for sharks is the goal for many scientists, managers, and NGOs, and advocates incorrectly claiming that it is impossible doesn’t help anything.

12) Without sharks, the ocean will completely collapse. This claim comes in many forms, with the most extreme being “without sharks, all the plankton will die and there will be no more oxygen on Earth“. While various hypothesized and observed negative ecological consequences of the loss of sharks have been discussed, if every single shark on Earth died (which is not going to happen), it would be bad, but would not result in total ecological collapse- at least not according to the best available science.

13) Sharks don’t get cancer. Advocates sometimes claim that sharks don’t get cancer as an argument to keep them alive (i.e. for future human benefit resulting from medical research). It simply isn’t true. Cancerous tumors were first found in sharks over 150 years ago, and have been seen in more than 20 species.

Why does it matter if people use inaccurate facts if they’re “on my side”? For one thing, an objective analysis of the situation shows that sharks are economically, ecologically and culturally important, and that populations of many species are in danger of extinction. Given the seriousness of the problem, in addition to being morally wrong, lying or exaggerating simply isn’t needed to get the point across. Additionally, saying things that are wrong in support of your argument allows the other side to easily dismiss the entire argument, and even to discredit others arguing for improved shark conservation without using incorrect facts. In the words of Dr. Shelley Clarke,  “Selective and slanted use of information devalues and marginalizes researchers who are working hard to impartially present the data…[and] exaggeration and hyperbole run the risk of undermining conservation campaigns.”

I wish everyone a Happy New Year, which I hope will be a year featuring increased factual accuracy in the shark conservation dialogue.  If I missed any other wrong things that conservation advocates commonly say, feel free to share them in the comments below.

* Based on the comment thread below, I am clarifying this point to state that shark finning still occurs both legally and illegally, but it is much less common due to major conservation policy changes in the last two decades.

  1. Perhaps you forgot a 14th: shark advocates should do stuff instead of just preaching in blogs, and most importantly should avoid preaching to other advocates based on this holier-than-thou attitude so conspicuous in some corners… although I know that this is so much an American tradition that to some this advice will be difficult to understand 🙂 Happy New Year!

  2. David why are you trying to add sense to a never ending series of hyperbolic, Facebook infused, slightly racist and hysteria based arguments that have fueled the shark conservation movement to date? Without these “long legs of media message mismanagement” I am unsure of the shark con movement can survive. Then again, some serious talking points that actually have substance behind them might just help move the movement into a broader playing field. Thanks for this. 100 million sharks are not killed each year? The wonders of science and hard data never cease to amaze. I wonder if anyone in the fringe is listening…because we all know they cannot or will not read anything that contains more than 25 words and an image of a dead shark/whale/dog/rhino;)

    • Patric – ultimately, conservation efforts of any kind are going to be rife with uneducated, reactionary nonsense. I am guilty of being quite the loudmouth in shark conservation talks, though I have made every effort to educate myself (and be educated by others far more knowledgeable than myself) in order to make my advocacy efforts more effective. Even though the vast majority of shark enthusiasts will ignore posts such as this one because it challenges their black and white worldview, there will always be those who will take the information, process it, investigate it, and hopefully put it to good use. We can at least hope, right?

      David – I will pass this link around, thank you for posting. I agree with Dr Hammerschlag below that specific examples would be very useful. I give talks occasionally to both adults and children and am always on the lookout for more information!

    • Patric .. I take offence to the last sentence of your opionion .. as a fringe dweller I strive to obtain accurate data when it comes to sharks, and I can tell you I am well able and quite willing to read more than 25 words at a time. I have lived with and swum with sharks from a very early age. My fringe dwelling ability may just add to the enlightenment of others to these awesome creatures..

  3. Thanks so much for all the information this will be very helpful in advocating. One question though im just curious, ou said “Many people calling for a ban on finning really seem to want no shark fishing and no fin trade of any kind (a viewpoint I disagree with, but regardless, proper terminology matters).” Exactly which part of that statement do you disagree with? Personally i feel all shark fishing and shark fin trade needs to be stopped but thats me.Thanks again for the info im gonna share it all over!

    • Thanks for answering i was just curious. I too support sustainable well managed & well enforced fisheries and depending on the shark breed and its numbers im not at all opposed to fishing for them i do however completely disagree with any form of finning thanks again for the great info David i’ll be sure to pass it on quite enlightening!

  4. David. Thank you for providing this helpful review. I think this is extremely valuable and will help the shark conservation community. That said, I believe there are a few points where adding additional information would be useful.

    In #7, you make a good point and show how different policies can impact sharks differently, some which are mutually exclusive. Further, in many situations, managers are more likely to adopt one measure over another (for better or worse), despite differences in policy efficacy. Although not stated directly, the point you raise suggests that shark advocates should push for the “best option” possible for a given situation. Given the context-specific complexity, it is hard for shark conservation advocates to know what exactly to advocate for in a given situation. Also, it is equally difficult to know what tool (e.g. petitions, letters, etc) is the best option to use in that situation. It would a missed opportunity to waste social capital advocating for an issue or using a tool that is not the best option. Can you suggest any sources that people can use to know what the ‘best option is’ for a given situation and how to go about advocating for it?

    In #11, I think it is really important that you made the correct point that sustainable shark fishing is (or should be) the goal of shark conservation. Can you please provide an example of an undisputed sustainable shark fishery? Perhaps also describe what attributes contributed to making the fishery sustainable. I think such an example would be a good flag to wave as a model to follow.

    In #12, you make an important point. It may be useful to provide examples of where shark declines have impacted marine community structure or function? Again, I think these examples would be really useful so that shark advocates can have informed discussions.

    • Dear Neil,
      First of all, I have the upmost respect for your work and I am honored to even be able to reply to one of your comments…

      I just wanted to address your questions regarding #11 (even though your questions were intended for David).

      To me, consideration of the vulnerability of the target species, stock status, bycatch issues, degradation of habitat and a solid fisheries management plan (FMP) are some of the fundamental characteristics that define a sustainable fishery.

      As a shark conservationist at heart, I can say with complete confidence that California’s drift gillnet fishery and Hawaii’s shallow set long line fishery for swordfish, common thresher sharks and shortfin mako sharks are both sustainable shark fisheries.

      In 2011, shark conservationists, members of the Seafood Watch program, NMFS fisheries managers, scientists, fishermen and other stakeholders attended a series of information sharing workshops that describe the sustainable characteristics of these fisheries in detail.
      http://swr.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfws/index.html
      The Seafood Watch program considers these shark fisheries a “good alternative” rather than a fishery to “avoid.”

    • Jonathan – thanks for the kind words and useful information. Much appreciated

      David, Jonathan and others – with respect to sustainable shark fisheries (and other conservation efforts like MPAs or sanctuaries), another big (and related) issue comes down to managers adopting the recommendations of fishery scientists as well as proper enforcement of these regulations. . .

    • “Another big (and related) issue comes down to managers adopting the recommendations of fishery scientists as well as proper enforcement of these regulations. . .”

      Absolutely true. The recommendations made by scientists and science advisory panels are (usually) quite sound. Getting RFMOs and natural resource management agencies to adopt them would be an excellent and quite helpful use of the shark conservation community’s resources, organizational skills, and passion.

    • In regards to shark fisheries that are sustainable, for a more local example it is my understanding that Black tip sharks (C. limbatus) in the Gulf of Mexico have rebounded and are no longer over-fished (SEDAR 29). We have assessments coming up for bonnethead and sharpnose shark this year (2013). It will be interesting to see what the statuses of these small coastal species are given their faster growth.

    • Actually blacktip sharks have never been assessed as overfished (SEDAR11), so the use of the word ‘rebounded’ is misleading. Small point, but important.

    • “That said, I believe there are a few points where adding additional information would be useful.”

      I could probably have turned each of these points into a several thousand word blog post (and still might in the future for some of them), but the goal was to briefly express repeated concerns. I’ll try to address your questions as best as possible in the comments here, but for many of them I may have to say “stay tuned for a future blog post on this topic” to avoid a multiple-page comment.

      “Although not stated directly, the point you raise suggests that shark advocates should push for the “best option” possible for a given situation. Given the context-specific complexity, it is hard for shark conservation advocates to know what exactly to advocate for in a given situation. Also, it is equally difficult to know what tool (e.g. petitions, letters, etc) is the best option to use in that situation. Can you suggest any sources that people can use to know what the ‘best option is’ for a given situation and how to go about advocating for it?”

      I think there often, but not always, is a “best solution” for a given problem. This varies from problem to problem, which makes it complicated, but I try to keep people up to date on the major problems (and the scientific community’s best solution) using this blog and my twitter. I often share petitions on twitter with a brief explanation of why it isn’t helpful. In terms of a general list of available policies, their pros and cons, and what they can be used for, I’m working on a paper along those lines over break, you’ll have a draft in the next couple of weeks.

      “Can you please provide an example of an undisputed sustainable shark fishery? Perhaps also describe what attributes contributed to making the fishery sustainable. I think such an example would be a good flag to wave as a model to follow.”

      I don’t know of any that are “undisputed”, but in general (with a few notable exceptions), the U.S. commercial shark fishery is very well managed. Jonathan gave a specific example that I agree with. MSC certified a dogfish fishery, but some are disputing that. In terms of general characteristics, they’d be the same as a regular fishery- using gear with little bycatch or habitat destruction, and not removing too much biomass from the ecosystem.

      “It may be useful to provide examples of where shark declines have impacted marine community structure or function?”

      I’m working on a big blog post about this for 2013, so stay tuned, but there are two excellent review papers available on this topic if anyone can’t wait. Heithaus et al. 2006 (Predicting consequences of marine top predator declines) and Feretti 2010 (Patterns and Ecosystem Consequences of Shark Declines). Both are available in .PDF form via Google Scholar.

    • Hey David –

      I am obviously aware of the papers you quote (and many others), but thought that this type of info would be useful. I agree that this is beyond the scope of the blog. When you write the future, related, blogs, it would be good to cross-reference.

      In terms of reputable sources for advocates to get their info for any “action” related opportunities (e.g. petitions etc), I suggest SharkSavers, Shark Alliance, Conservation International and others which I know you are also aware of.

  5. Well done David. I might have to reprint this info on Elasmodiver (with due credit). I hope this post goes viral but as you didn’t include an image of a gaping great white shark or an attack victim, I guess thats unlikely 😉

  6. “Stopping shark finning is a worthy goal (that has largely been accomplished already)…” is inaccurate or wishful thinking in terms of it having been ‘largely…accomplished already’. As just one example, from the U.S. no less — where the act of finning is indeed illegal: http://www.torontosun.com/2012/12/26/us-coast-guard-seizes-illegal-haul-of-dead-sharks the practice does seem to continue; for the simple reason that the fins are more valuable, by far, than the rest of the shark…as you know.

    There are many more examples that have been reported in the press and likely even more that have not.

    This is not meant to debate the point about how to properly define shark finning (agreed!) or whether or not working to finally eliminate the practice of ‘finning’ is a valid conservation goal (though many believe it is), only to point out an inaccuracy regarding your specific point, that the practice has been largely wiped out — it has not.

    • Finning still occurs illegally (as in the examples you mention) and legally (in Indonesia and New Zealand and probably a few other places I’m not aware of offhand), but laws passed in the last 20 years have made the practice significantly less common.

      It’s now newsworthy when one boat is finning, where before these laws, basically every shark fishing boat was finning. That’s why I said stopping finning has “largely” been accomplished already. Not entirely.

  7. David – In terms of facts, the latest comment raises a good point in that ending finning has NOT “largely been accomplished” yet. It arguably still remains the biggest threat facing sharks. In your reply you reconcile to say that it has become “less common.” Therefore, it is misleading to keep the wording you have saying that ending shark finning has “largely been accomplished” since it has not, as you point out. Despite being “less common,” it is still very common. I like the wording you used in your response to the latest comment. Perhaps you can modify your first point in the blog to better reflect the clarification in your response, i.e. it is still very common, occurring both illegally and legally, but has been significantly decreased due to laws passed in the last 20 years.

    • David – also, do you have any figures (and a reference) to support the degree to which shark finning has decreased in the past 20 years as you report? Again, I think these details would be quite useful for advocates to show the success of shark conservation efforts.

    • I don’t have figures but there are plenty of references. It’s a little complex for a comment, but I’ll write a new post about the decline in shark finning (ideally sometime in January but we’ll see).

  8. Some of these points are the same, but I see you’re trying to get to ’13’.
    I can’t ever imagine supporting shark fishing. As you yourself say, shark populations are declining, and going for a total ban on fins in the marketplace must produce a better outcome for sharks surely. Obviously the term ‘finning’ isn’t interchangeable with the shark fin trade, but while a billion people enjoy shark fin soup, how many use the rest of the carcus? Therefore finning is likely to continue to be an option, as these ‘finners’ are unlikely to waste time bringing on board the whole shark. This way, the most you can hope for is the shark being killed before being finned but then still dumped. Yes this is more humane but still leaves the bycatch. You have to also consider that culturally these finners don’t care about the shark, they have bigger things to worry about, like feeding their families. Shifts in attitude towards tradition do happen (off the top of my head, the popularity of whale meat has decreased in Japan as a result of the rest of the world adding pressure). Sharks are not appealing to most people, protecting them is not an easy task. And I still believe and persue a total ban on shark fin soup, finning and shark fishing of any kind.
    Because no sharks have legal protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act does not mean they are not endangered. And I won’t use a “simulation average” of 38 million when it is possible that 73 million sharks killed each year for their fins is more accurate! Come on, this is nearly double!

    I’m uncomfortable with your relaxed attitude toward shark conservation but I appreciate some of your points.

    • Louise, while you make some valid points, like the fact that finning is often the most economical option for some fisherman looking for the biggest return, I am curious to know how that translates to a ban on shark fishing of any kind. There is a tendency among shark advocates to want a complete ban on shark fishing, but one of the crucial points that I think is often ignored that controlled, regulated taking of individuals is not inherently a bad thing for a species or population as a whole. Sport fisherman, for instance, can be a conservationist’s greatest ally. Even researchers doing the most valuable work for conservation engage in practices that might be bad for individuals (lethal sampling, or even SPOT tagging some will argue).

    • “Obviously the term ‘finning’ isn’t interchangeable with the shark fin trade, but while a billion people enjoy shark fin soup, how many use the rest of the carcus? Therefore finning is likely to continue to be an option, as these ‘finners’ are unlikely to waste time bringing on board the whole shark. This way, the most you can hope for is the shark being killed before being finned but then still dumped.”

      That statement is inconsistent with the goals and successes of decades of global shark fisheries management. When the laws and regulations require landing the entire shark, most fishermen will land the entire shark (obviously some will break the law).

      “Because no sharks have legal protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act does not mean they are not endangered.”

      Certainly not, and I didn’t claim otherwise. 1 in 6 species of sharks, skates, rays, or chimeras are Threatened according to the IUCN Red List, and some of those are so bad as to be considered Endangered or Critically Endangered.

      “I can’t ever imagine supporting shark fishing. As you yourself say, shark populations are declining”

      I support species-specific protections for the species that are particularly threatened. Many species of sharks can support a limited fishery based on science based quotas.

  9. Popularizing science is a very difficult thing to achieve. It is worth considering that misinformation becomes widespread because it appeals to the general public’s sense of Right and Wrong, where soundbites with some tenuous connection to a factual foundation fit firmly into a black and white worldview. It is not surprising that sympathetic individuals fall prey to exaggerated claims, because they lack the background, ability, or dedication to look deeper.

    I am guilty of being a bit of a loudmouth when discussing shark conservation, but as it is my intended career path I am always looking to further my knowledge. The difficulty is that most people’s introduction to these issues is not from researchers, but from organizations like Sea Shepherd or documentaries like Sharkwater, who seek a reactionary, emotional impact to make a point. Once that impression is made, it is very hard to scale it back to a more realistic discussion, perhaps because it lacks the same shock factor that appeals to people’s indignation in the first place.

    It’s ironic that conservationists can be their own worst enemy.

    • Sometimes one must stir the pot before getting the intended result. Raising awareness is the first step in any effort to bring about positive change and I contend that Sea Shepherd has done an admirable job in that regard. Hopefully someday the hype and drama will become unnecessary.

  10. Hi, David,
    Thanks for your cool-headed information about the situation concerning sharks.
    I would like to comment that perhaps those pushing misinformed views at least attract attention to the cause and are therefore somewhat instrumental in bringing about results. For sharks, especially, the hysterical hatred toward them gets balanced by the passionate views in Sharkwater. We are, after all, dealing with human beings who will rarely listen to simple facts.
    I am quite a stickler for being accurate, and appreciate your information from that point of view. I would love to see your detailed response to Neil Hammerschlag’s post – I agree with him that we need more information on those points.

  11. It’s a bit of a toughie, I mean if Shark fishing is banned then the price of fins could increase and hence Sharks become more attractive to poachers, which in turn exacerbates the threatened status and the decline of Sharks in general, but if Shark fishing is not banned then, who can say how animals are killed, or if they are killed at all, before being de-finned then thrown back into the ocean (which we all know goes on every day). But if it becomes law to have Sharks AND fins on board, in an attempt to show that humane killing took place, who’s to say the Shark didn’t flap around in the ice hold for hours, left to suffocate and die in terror or if the Shark has to have proof of fast killing with a knife or icky spike (for example). Who’s to say it wasn’t spiked after it suffocated or some sick individuals had a game killing it (yes, fishermen do that kind of stuff)? I think most would agree (from the comments here) that some kind of sustainable Shark farming would be the only way, and the lucky ones might be used in aquariums, to help educate people about the reality of Shark life (and that a Shark isn’t going to kill them in their sleep), as opposed to using wild caught Sharks here also. In my opinion the fear of Sharks, that leads to hatred or killing for the sake of killing (and the fear of any other animal for that matter) is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of. We are part of the Circle of Life, as they are, but I’m going off the track here. So, let’s hope the Aquaculture experts can figure something out sooner rather than later.

    • “I mean if Shark fishing is banned then the price of fins could increase and hence Sharks become more attractive to poachers”

      Illegal fishing, while still a problem, is generally much smaller in scale than legal fishing.

      “if it becomes law to have Sharks AND fins on board, in an attempt to show that humane killing took place”

      It is the law in most of the world already. And the reason isn’t because of humane killing, it’s because it is much easier for managers to identify the species from the whole carcass than from the fins, and because you can generally hold fewer whole carcass than fins in a cargo hold.

      “So, let’s hope the Aquaculture experts can figure something out sooner rather than later.”

      I’ve seen nothing to suggest that aquaculture is a feasible option for the overwhelming majority of shark species that are fished.

    • Thanks David. Always keen to learn more, but what do you suggest will help the problem? I mean, you didn’t actually say.

    • “what do you suggest will help the problem? I mean, you didn’t actually say.”

      Not in this one post, no, but we’ve written almost 1,500 in the current incarnation of Southern Fried Science, and hope to continue for a long time.

  12. David: yet another brilliant post, thank you – and for once, I agree with all that you say! 🙂

    But allow me a comment on point 10.
    Yes there has certainly been progress in the USA but as always, it’s situation- and species-specific. Probably quite good for some species like Spurdog and say, Tiger – probably too late, too little and too slow for Dusky (which however I learn may just be an oceanic form of the Galapagos?).
    And of course countries like the US are the big exception.
    Especially in developing countries, the situation is still grim, with little to no hope that this will change in the foreseeable future – hence the advocacy of fin bans and sanctuaries!
    And in keeping with what has been said about the finning: we should not confuse “statements” and even legislation with what really happens on the ground. E.g. without having the means to check, I’m doubtful that many parties have already ratified and legislated the WCPFC ban on retention of OWTs and fear that they will continue to kill and land them in 2013 – but happy to be proven wrong!

    @José Truda Palazzo Jr.: could not disagree more!
    Dissent and debates are eminently necessary if we want to weed out the BS and remain a credible “movement” as a whole – as exemplified by this post and by the link above, where several Shark bloggers completely debunked the then all-pervasive oxygen myth.
    One could argue that the Shark bloggers “do” something by the simple act of blogging as all of them strive to inform their readers; but if by “doing stuff” you mean real conservation “in action”, it just so happens that each and every one of them does just that. But maybe they are quite happy do simply do it and don’t feel the urge to promote themselves through the media, social and otherwise? 🙂

  13. The one topic I think you forgot about is comparing shark deaths to shark related human deaths. The comparison usually starts off saying shark only kill X number of people but XX of them are killed by us. Why bring sharks killing humans up when talking about shark conservation?

    Al Brenneka

    • Hi, Al, and thanks for commenting. Unlike the other points, shark attacks are actually based on fact. While I can understand the strategic decision to not discuss them, I think it can be relevant in the context of “relative risk”. Most people already think about sharks primarily in terms of shark attacks, so mentioning it isn’t providing a new negative perspective.

  14. Dr. Shiffman, quick question (and probably not a new one): Under what circumstances would you advise ordering shark (fin or otherwise) at a restaurant in the US at present? Are most of the sharks on menus here caught ethically (whole animals harvested in a sustainable manner, etc.) or unethically? I haven’t eaten shark in years because I had been led to believe that there’s no such thing as a sustainable fishery for it, but if there’s a way to have some confidence that I’d be served a sustainably-harvested fish, I’d be willing to try it.

    • I wouldn’t explicitly advise ordering shark fin soup (or shark meat) anywhere, but you can certainly find sources that are more sustainable than others. As with any fish, you have to know what species it is, how it was caught, and where it comes from.

  15. I don’t mean to nit-pick but this important point keeps coming up with no examples or data. You commented regarding laws against ‘finning’ that “..it is the law in most of the world already.” Is it? If so, it would be great to see some stats on that…
    Thanks.

    • It is an important point and I’ve been intentionally vague because there’s a much longer and detailed blog post about it coming in the next few weeks. In the meantime, the U.S. banned finning in 1994 (and closed most remaining loopholes in 2010), the EU (the largest shark fin supplier) closed their loopholes earlier this year, and most of the top 20 shark fishing nations (as identified by the 2011 TRAFFIC/PEW report) either restrict or ban finning.

      It still happens illegally (much less often than when it was legal) and legally (notably in Indonesia and New Zealand, also others that aren’t among the top 20 fishing nations), but most major fishing nations (and many regional fisheries management organizations) require landing carcasses along with fins (which isn’t ideal for lots of reasons but is better than dumping carcasses at sea) or require landing carcasses with fins naturally attached.

      Delete | Delete & Ban IP

  16. Thanks; that is a helpful summary of what you meant (by nation rather than geographically). One last question; are there any circumstances under which you would support the establishment of a shark sanctuary? Or are you suggesting they are, uniformly and across-the-board, an example of a conservation policy/action that gets in the way of implementing ‘sustainable shark fisheries’? Thanks again.

    • Sorry Sam, I just found this, it got lost in a flood of other comments.

      By definition, a no-shark-fishing-allowed “sanctuary” makes sustainable shark fishing impossible. I think this is likely beyond dispute.

      That isn’t inherently a bad thing (or a good thing), though.

      I support sustainable fisheries, but there are certainly many circumstances where having “sanctuaries” (or, preferably, full no-take marine protected areas) would be good, as long as they are adequately enforced. For example, if having sharks in the water is economically important to a local economy (SCUBA ecotourism), or if sharks are culturally important (parts of the South Pacific, Hawaii, etc).

      I don’t think that shark sanctuaries (or MPAs) are the be-all end-all answer, because we’re simply not ever going to be able to get them in place everywhere. Most of the science I’ve seen on MPAs suggests that somewhere between 1/5 and 1/3 of the ocean should be no-take preserve, and the rest should be managed as sustainably as possible.

  17. We cannot avoid the economic interests of the fishing industry if we want to find really effective ways of protecting sharks. Economy and conservation must be hand in hand in this. It is impossible to find 200,000 captain Watsons to patrol the fishing areas around the world. If we don’t gain the complicity of fishermen in our conservative actions… all is lost. For some species at least, sustainable fisheries can be managed, and that’s a major target to achieve.
    However, there are many other species for which this is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve: deep water sharks, now more and more targetted for their liver oil. That’s a serious problem.
    That said, it is equally important to make public opinion aware of what’s really going on with sharks… People have to know what they eat, or the implications of their decisions as consumers. Here, blogging is absolutely necessary (I mean, sound blogging, reasonable posts, like this one, etc.). Be a part of the chain to spread knowledge is fundamental: raising awarenes among voters so that they are capable of asking their representatives to adopt certain policies.
    Of course, finning is not the same as fishing sharks for their fins. Although in some cases they look much the same.

  18. Thanks for the post. I’ve enjoyed reading it (most at least), and have also shared it. In fact, I might even copy the format some time around.

    I have some, somewhat critical comments, just because I found the job seriously worth it.

    My first goes for your #12, the one that surprised me more: “every single shark on Earth died (which is not going to happen), it would be bad, but would not result in total ecological collapse- at least not according to the best available science”. I do not think such assertion is science-based. If it would be, I’ve read it in Science, Nature or the like, because it contradicts current understanding of the role of predators in ecosystems. From Paine onwards to Estes (recent and old). Indeed I have just refreshed my understanding of the Tree paper by Heithaus et al. you suggested, and cannot see how it sustains your point. At least not that sternly taken.
    I also doubt such an assertion could ever be evaluated, at least for the pelagic realm. Hence, the precautionary principle should be at work instead of a laid back approach.

    Somewhat related to this, you throw in some values in a post that’s intended to infuse science in value-ladden folks, unless I misunderstood your intentions. You seem to support sustainable shark fishing; OK, but how come fishing is needed for the conservation of top predators? Is there science in that, or merely a compromise you think needed to sustain certain economic activity? It eludes me why we need a shark fishery in Europe, for instance. I’d be surprised that it is really needed in the US.

    Last, just a thought: I’ve been hit by doing pretty much what you seek here, moving conservation towards a safer, science-based ground. A colleague told me then to always remember who the “evil” was, and that not all fringes are equally far from that safer ground. Also, man, some fringe it’s really what it takes sometimes…

    • I think you missed my point- let me clarify. The papers I referenced don’t say “if we lose all the sharks then the oceans won’t collapse”, as you point out. They detail specific and limited circumstances in which the loss of sharks can negatively affect ecosystems. The issue is that many advocates have wildly exaggerated and extrapolated these conclusions to claim that they will impact the whole ocean.

      “how come fishing is needed for the conservation of top predators?”

      Fishing isn’t needed for conservation. Fishing is already happening. Applying the principles of conservation biology and fisheries management allow us to ensure that fishing happens in the least environmentally destructive manner possible.

  19. PS
    May I suggest adding 2 more common fallacies to your list.

    14) Never criticize another conservationist.
    Dissent and debates are eminently important for the advancement of the movement, see my previous comment.

    15) We must all work together.
    Strategies, ideologies, agendas and especially personalities are often simply incompatible.

    Would you agree to that? 🙂

  20. I do not think I missed your point, I hope I can explain mine better: I was just pointing out how the text might read. See, “total ecogical collapse” cannot even be precisely defined.

    Then “fishing is already happening”: sure, so is deforestation or, quite hip now, shooting wolves. That was a cheesy crack, but things that are happening now may be stopped, changed.

    Thanks a lot for taking the time.

    • …however, fishing isn’t an inherently “bad” thing. Obviously, there are going to be ecological effects, some of them far beyond what we consider to be acceptable. The challenge, as I see it, is to collectively (i.e., with everyone’s participation) define the limits of what is and is not acceptable and to manage fisheries such that the results remain within those limitations.

    • … “is to collectively (i.e., with everyone’s participation) define the limits of what is and is not acceptable and to manage fisheries…”
      isn’t that politics instead of biology? Of course that is needed, but recommendation from a conservation biologists should be independent. Then is somebody else’s job to balance it with other POV, and manage accordingly.
      Still, I have a hard time buying commercial shark fishing knowing what we know about the status of marine top predators; it would have to be sustainable enough to allow recovery.

    • “isn’t that politics instead of biology? Of course that is needed, but recommendation from a conservation biologists should be independent.”

      I see your point Mario, though the cynic in me is inclined to remark that politics are awfully hard to disentangle from these topics, even at a pretty basic level! My concern is that it’s simplistic to state that “all fishing is bad” (not something I’m accusing you of)–if we as a society accept that some fishing is reasonable as a source of protein and a livelihood (maybe even for recreation), then we also have to recognize that these activities will have an ecological effect. I do not, however, see enough folks talking about how much of an effect and what kinds of effects are acceptable.

  21. I would just comment on #8. I think we should still encourage people to act. Yes people shouldn’t lie and should know what they are talking about, but at least spread the word based on facts hopefully the truthful facts of others or their own researched facts. I would elaborate on the statement where “at least there doing something” is bad. Whereas some actions may not be productive, if you do nothing at all what will get done? At least do your research or spread the issue.

    • If you’re going to “do something” that actually helps, go for it (though this will likely involve learning from a reputable source). If what you’re doing isn’t going to help at all or is going to make it harder for others to help, I’d much rather you do nothing. If you’re interested in learning what to do so that you can actually make a positive difference, keep reading the blog.

  22. I would also comment on the fact that all sharks going extinct will never happen. This is improbable, but not impossible. With the increasing rate of extinctions you should never underestimate the possibility for a species, genus or family to go extinct.

  23. Hello David.
    While I appreciate your desire to bring scientific accuracy to conservation, a worthy goal similar to that of Don Quixote, I don’t nessicarily think a laissez faire attitude is the way to go. First I do agree with sustainable fishing. I would compare it to deer hinting. The only difference being that we are no where near that time, where culling would be nessecary. While 1 in 6 (a very high number), sharks, skates, and rays remain on the IUCN Red List an active conservation plan appears to be the only course of action. I do believe stopping the “Shak Fin Trade” is more accurate, some times you have to pick the easiest rallying cry. The Chinese demand for shark fins, at the last accurate measure, was about 6% per year. This is the problem. As long as the demand is increasing, the supply will increase as long as money is involved. An increase simply means that this problem is not declining or has it for the most part gone away. As far as the sharks impact on the ocean, the real truth is no one can truly say with any accuracy, what that would be. The truth is statstically you can only go by samples from small areas that can be measured. The problem with that is the food web of the ocean is so complex it would be financially unfeasable to do this on a large scale. So jut as it would be next to impossible to prove that the production of oxygen would be affected by removal of an apex predator, it would be eaqully near impossible to statistically prove that it would have no affect on the production, to be scientifically accurate. A good read is the book Freakonomics which investigates the effects of things based on seemingy unrelated practices. So my solution would be to say that there would be significant cascading impacts by the loss of one of the oceans apex predators, but at this time there can only be speculation as to what those could/would be. To summarize, because of the sharks reproductive and growth pattern, immediate action is required not to have long term effects. Sure some practices have been put in place, but if the numbers of affected species is increasing, it is obvoiusly not effective.
    I do agree whole heartidly with statements 6,7,10,11, and 13. I agree with accuracy in an argument. The problem being that your argument comes off that shark conservation, and its advocates, are useless.

    • “As far as the sharks impact on the ocean, the real truth is no one can truly say with any accuracy, what that would be. The truth is statstically you can only go by samples from small areas that can be measured. The problem with that is the food web of the ocean is so complex it would be financially unfeasable to do this on a large scale. So jut as it would be next to impossible to prove that the production of oxygen would be affected by removal of an apex predator, it would be eaqully near impossible to statistically prove that it would have no affect on the production, to be scientifically accurate. ”

      When advocates claim that the science unequivocally states that without sharks, the oceans collapse, they are either wrong or lying. It’s entirely possible that the effects might be worse than what current research shows, but making that claim is called “guessing”, which has no place in fact-based advocacy (particularly not when you don’t even acknowledge that it is guessing).

      “The problem being that your argument comes off that shark conservation, and its advocates, are useless.”

      Advocates that make claims that are blatantly incorrect aren’t useless- they’re worse than useless. It means that responsible advocates and organizations have to be spend their limited time and resources correcting them instead of working on convincing policymakers and the public.

    • My first comment was too simply state that neither side can say with any sort of accuracy what the results would be because there are far too many variables. As most things in science are simply theories that can only guess to a statistical percentage of their probability. So I propose advocates for or against should abstain from any statements.
      On the second point, I completely agree that misinformation sets progress back. But the statement you made came of as a blanket one when speaking about conservationists. That Is a thought I would completely disagree with. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Educate the masses, don’t condescend to them. If you do you will have allies not advisories.

  24. A really great overview David and a great discussion. Shark fining and shark fin trade are commonly confused. However “Stopping shark finning is a worthy goal (that has largely been accomplished already) was a poor start to an otherwise excellent analysis. We see rampant finning on the high seas and even in Gulf waters despite Federal laws by both Mexico and the US. With a handful of nations (around 30) with anti finning laws, shark fining is legal and flagrant around the world. What is needed is a UN Ban on the practice and enforcement in regions where it is illegal- like Central America. What is needed is greater fishery restrictions for sharks and shark products and reducing the shark fin trade through trade bans.

    Given the scanty data for the MSC “sustainable spiny dogfish fishery” it remains to be seen whether there really can be such a thing. Included in the definition should be negligible to no bycatch. It that category the Southern California drift gill net fishery fails. Thousands of blue sharks, other species of sharks including Great White Sharks, marine mammals and sea turtles are all killed as bycatch in the thresher shark fishery (and now Mako where the population is data deficient).

    David McGuire, Shark Stewards

    • @Seastewards
      I get worried when I see such comments from a shark conservation organization leader like yourself that collects peoples donations. Folks like you worry me because you are irresponsible and you mislead the public.

      “Included in the definition should be negligible to no bycatch. It that category the Southern California drift gill net fishery fails. Thousands of blue sharks, other species of sharks including Great White Sharks, marine mammals and sea turtles are all killed as bycatch in the thresher shark fishery (and now Mako where the population is data deficient).”

      Currently, over 90% of the total bycatch by numbers in the DGN fishery comes from a single species, the common mola (sunfish). Although there has not been a definitive study on the survivorship of common mola released from DGN gear, observations by NMFS observers and researchers suggest that a high percent (>90%) of them are released alive.

      Here is a link to info regarding shark bycatch in California’s drift gillnet fishery, you might learn something here:
      http://swr.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfws/Kohin-for%20posting.pdf

      As far as great white shark bycatch, the numbers are a non-issue as you can see here:
      http://www.eatusseafood.com/?p=266

      Pingers have lowered bycatch of cetaceans by 50% (Barlow and Cameron 2003) and the 6 fathom extenders (buoy lines) have drastically reduced bycatch of California sea lions and CTS which are typically near the surface at night when the nets are being dragged.

      California’s drift gillnet fishery hasn’t killed a sea turtle in 13 years. Here is a link to prove it:
      https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0AmtAXS70A2eodF9QTTZ5UnczNWJ5YTdBaHRnbk9sQUE&gid=9

      Do your homework Mr. David McGuire. You owe it to the folks that donate to your organization and the sharks you claim to protect.

  25. David,

    Good points. I will print em out and bring em on the boat to add to the outreach curriculum if you don’t mind. These are issues I speak on with all my passengers when we go out to the Farallones to see the sharks there. Also, great thread here. Lots of thought put into a lot of statements. Good stuff.
    I’d personally like to see major changes in fisheries management with regards to bycatch. And yes, I understand this thread relates to sharks. Bycatch a major issue that really doesn’t get the attention it should. Don’t get me wrong, I completely support targeting vulnerable species of sharks with special protections and any other species as well and the finning practices towards sharks aren’t sustainable certainly but I’m seeing bycatch as an easy way (well, easier maybe) of making a major change to stocks of sharks and other animals. I know that may sound a bit simplistic but shark management is tied into the general fisheries management and industry as a whole. Bycatch is a component of fish stocks depletion regardless of species.
    With regards to percentages of species declines, I’m pretty sure, and this is opinion mind but like all the other rapid declines in other fish species populations in the last 400 years of commercial fishing, the easy species and commercially profitable go first. Once a species aren’t viable any longer there is a shift to the next easiest. Brings things around to your point of a well managed fishery.
    David MacGuire makes good points here as well and he knows I support him every way I can. A major problem though, in any scenario is enforcement, or lack there of. With that being the case it’s going to be tough to manage any fishery let alone the shark industry if my experiences in the Farallones are any indication. Since you mentioned “Shark Water” there is a particular case in point of lack of enforcement as well. As much as I would like to see a UN ban on the practice of finning. And yes I do take your points on the definition. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s realistic to see a world ban anytime soon. A better managed fishery may be more realistic. Either way every bit helps.
    As to scanty data, that sounds like a call for more citizen science and public involvement where possible in structured form. Plenty of opportunity for data collection if requests were made for volunteers. Lot’s of boats out there. Lot’s of people wanting to be involved. David MacGuire and Shark Stewards are a great example. Personally I’ve gotten tags on the East Coast from Nat. Marine Fisheries in the South East. I’ve done Lion Fish collection for U. Miami. I volunteer info when I can to those that would take it and I’d certainly work with most anyone that asked. Granted that would most likely be rudimenary information but it helps build baselines and does leg work. I’d really like to see more involvement from scientists to work with the public to that end.

    Greg Barron
    IA

  26. Thank you for this post! Great to help dissipate misconceptions…
    Working a lot with divers, we are currently seeing a shift in the general public’s attitude towards conservation. More and more divers feel concerned by shark conservation. Many of the misconceptions mentioned here are repeated endlessly by neophytes like ourselves! This will allow for readjustment…