I am, among other things, a conservation geneticist. What that means is that I use the tools of molecular ecology and population genetics to make observations about species and populations in at-risk ecosystems, assess the status of anthropogenically disturbed populations, and generate data that has direct applications to conservation and management issues. Essentially, the only difference between what I do and what a population geneticist or molecular ecologist does is the motivation—I select systems to work in that have a high conservation priority.
This motivation leads to a constant intellectual conflict at the bench. The tools of molecular ecology—PCR, gene sequencing, and, more frequently, high-throughput sequencing—are waste intensive. In order to avoid cross-contamination and practice precise, clean, technique, we use thousands of tiny plastic consumables every day. These come in the form of pipette tips, sterile packaging material, micro-centrifuge tubes, and numerous other plastic widgets. Often, because of the biohazard potential, these consumable cannot be recycled.
So we have a problem. As a conservation geneticist, we need these tools to produce the data necessary to make wise conservation and management decisions. As a sustainability minded individual, I find the massive daily accumulation of plastic waste inexcusable. Do we just accept this waste as the cost of conservation genetics? I believe that the answer is no. I think we can and should develop best practices to minimize the amount of plastic waste produced by a molecular lab while maintaining good, sterile technique. I would like to propose four guidelines, based off the principles of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, for minimizing waste in a conservation genetics lab.
A newly-released list of proposed amendments for the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties includes proposals to protect ten species of sharks and rays, a record-breaking number. These include three species of hammerheads, oceanic whitetip sharks, porbeagle sharks, three species of freshwater stingray, and both species of manta ray.
In total, 37 countries are involved in the proposed amendments. As expected, the United States is a co-sponsor of the oceanic whitetip measure. Additional noteworthy participants include major shark fishing nations like Mexico (co-sponsoring the hammerhead proposal) and the European Union (co-sponsoring the hammerhead and leading the porbeagle proposals).
“International trade is a major driver for shark fisheries around the world, and yet controls on this exploitation are woefully insufficient,” said Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International. “We are grateful for continued U.S. leadership in addressing international shark trade, and welcome this unprecedented number of proposals to safeguard these vulnerable species under CITES.”
Threats to these animals are diverse and include directed catch for both fins and meat, bycatch, alternative medicine (gill rakers), and even the aquarium trade. Each of the freshwater stingray species are considered Data Deficient by the IUCN Red List, scalloped and great hammerheads are considered Endangered, and the other species are Vulnerable.
Species of elasmobranchs currently protected by CITES include the great white shark, whale shark, basking shark, and all species of sawfish. Porbeagles, oceanic whitetips, and hammerheads were proposed for CITES protections in 2010, but the measures failed.
Each of these proposals aims to list a species under CITES Appendix II, which requires that any international export of these species be certified as sustainable (including the issuing of permits). The discussion will take place next March at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties in Bangkok, Thailand.
Last Wednesday morning, the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament voted on proposed amendments that would, if passed, form their response to the European Commission’s 2011 proposal to end all removal of shark fins at sea (and thereby close loopholes in the EU finning ban). As the EU is the single largest supplier of shark fins to the Hong Kong markets, the eyes of the marine conservation community were focused squarely on Brussels, where the vote was taking place. Despite the numerous celebratory tweets , press releases , and Facebook updates that I observed, the vote didn’t go as well as hoped. The result has been described as “contradictory”, “confusing”, “puzzling”, and “inconsistent”, and it’s hard to disagree with that summary.
The Committee voted on a series of amendments, most of which had been debated earlier this year. Most of the problematic amendments were defeated and several positive amendments were endorsed. One of the most closely watched, which would have maintained exceptions to the current ban on at-sea fin removal and would have raised the fin to carcass ratio to 14% of dressed weight, was defeated. However, proposed text which refers (in principle, but without details) to removal of fins at sea also narrowly passed.
Yes, you read that correctly. MEPs (Members of European Parliament) voted to adopt text that suggests that removing fins at sea is sometimes acceptable, but voted to accept the Commission’s proposal to delete that part of the current regulation allowing for such exceptions. Contradictory, confusing, puzzling, and inconsistent indeed!
Don’t worry, though- this isn’t over. One of the next steps is a discussion before a Plenary session of the full European Parliament, which will consider these issues. This will likely take place in the next few months, perhaps as early as mid-October.
“We will continue to urge all MEPs to promptly remove all confusion in Plenary and clearly endorse a strict EU policy against removing shark fins at sea, without exceptions,” said Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International.
I’ll keep you posted on what’s happening and how you can help.
All eyes in the shark world are focused on Belgium, where the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee votes Wednesday on one of the most significant conservation policies in years: a stronger EU-wide ban on shark finning via a prohibition on removing sharks at sea, with no more exceptions. Since some of the details are quite technical, emotions are running high, and a lot of misinformation is spreading, I’ve prepared a quick guide to help our readers understand the proposed policy. For much more detailed updates, follow the Shark Alliance’s blog.
1) The proposed policy would strengthen the current EU finning ban, not ban fins. As has previously been discussed, some of the language surrounding shark conservation policy can be confusing. As a reminder, shark finning is the act of removing fins from a shark at sea and dumping the body overboard. Finning of live sharks is incredibly inhumane (the “finned” shark will bleed to death or drown when dumped overboard), and incredibly wasteful whether the shark is alive or dead (less than 5% of the shark is used). Scientists are almost universally opposed to shark finning because it is often associated with unsustainable fishing and the practice makes it difficult for managers to know what species of shark the fin came from. The policy that the European Parliament is voting on is an amendment to the current EU ”finning ban”,” which relies on a complicated and lenient fin to carcass ratio for enforcement. The European Commission has proposed requiring that sharks be landed with fins still attached, which would strengthen enforcement and data collection capabilities. This is not a “fin ban” that would make it illegal to buy, sell, or possess fins.
The American Elasmobranch Society is a non-profit professional society focusing on the scientific study and conservation of sharks, skates, and rays. AES members meet each year in a different North American city, and this meeting is the world’s largest annual gathering of shark scientists. AES recently met in Vancouver, British Columbia for the 2012 meeting, and for the first time the event was live-tweeted by meeting attendees, including myself. I’ve organized the best conference tweets by session using Storify. If anyone has any questions or comments about the research presented below, please feel free to share it in the comments section of this blog post.
Here are selected tweets from the Elasmobranch Conservation sessions.
When Dr. Gavin Naylor and his team started a genetic survey of existing shark and ray species, they didn’t expect the results of their project to make international news. Their recent paper (which, at over 250 pages and complete with more than 100 figures, is nothing short of epic), however, is too striking to ignore. The results indicate that there may be as many as 79 previously unrecognized cryptic species of sharks and rays.
A cryptic species is defined as a group that looks almost exactly like another, and may even live in the same region, but is genetically distinct. We’ve known that cryptic species of sharks and rays exist for some time, such as manta rays and scalloped hammerhead sharks, but 79 is a lot; as of the paper’s publication, only 1,221 species of sharks and rays were recognized.
According to Dr. Naylor,
“Organisms become genetically differentiated over time through the cumulative effects of mutation and recombination mediated via drift and selection. When they differentiate in isolation they eventually become so different from the parental stock from which they were derived that they can no longer produce fertile offspring when crossed with them. Some biologists use the point of reproductive inviability as the point at which new species should be recognized….. For practical purposes we recognize “new species” as being genetically or morphologically distinctive from previously recognized forms.”
The study’s methods, though enormous in scope, were relatively basic. According to Dr. Naylor, the study utilized a technique very familiar to geneticists: “standard DNA extraction, PCR, Sanger sequencing, alignment and analysis of a protein coding mitochondrial gene”. To achieve the goals of understanding both evolutionary relationships of sharks and rays and parasite host specificity ( where certain parasites associated only with one species), Dr. Naylor and his team obtained and analyzed samples from as many species as they could. The numbers are impressive- 56 of 57 known families of elasmobranchs were represented among the 4,283 samples from 305 species of sharks and 269 species of batoids. In other words, this study included approximately half of all known elasmobranch species, including many that had never been analyzed genetically before. Since 1986, when the project began, samples have been obtained in more than 50 countries, mostly through the team’s own field work!
Kristine Stump is a PhD candidate in Marine Biology and Fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS). Her dissertation focuses on the effects of anthropogenic nursery habitat loss on juvenile lemon sharks in Bimini, Bahamas. She was the Principal Investigator of the Bimini Biological Field Station (BBFS, or Sharklab) from 2008 – 2011 while collecting field data for her degree and has been heavily involved in the process of establishing a Marine Protected Area in Bimini. Kristine has an M.A. in Marine Policy from RSMAS, and prior to entering the doctoral program, she spent five years working in Washington, DC at Ocean.US – the National Office for Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observations (now the NOAA IOOS Program). In addition, she has worked for the Census of Marine Life program office at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, DC.
There is an apex predator roaming the seas. For hundreds of thousands of years, this beast has hunted in the waters of the world’s oceans. Relentless is it in its search along the shorelines for that which satisfies its primal urges. Its numbers ever on the rise, the destruction in its path knows no bounds. And now, in 2012, it wants to dominate the sea more than ever before: it wants glass-bottom bungalows. It needs yacht dockage at its vacation home. It craves manicured fairways. IT MUST HAVE AN INFINITY POOL!
If you haven’t already guessed, the apex predator here is man. Throughout history, the environment has shaped man, but now more than ever, man is shaping the environment. In the current era of environmental awareness, however, we have learned that there are limits to the anthropogenic changes ecosystems can withstand while still maintaining ecosystem function. Luckily, we have learned to implement mitigation strategies to offset, to some degree, the negative effects of human expansion.
Shark finning, one of the most wasteful, unsustainable, and inhumane methods of gathering food in the history of human civilization, has rightly become a hot topic in the marine conservation movement. However, there is a great deal of confusion among activists concerning this problem and the best way to solve it. Those of you who follow me on twitter have seen me point out numerous recent anti-finning “awareness campaigns” which feature photographs of sharks that have not actually been finned.
Shark finning does not mean removing the fins from a shark. This is really important and seems to be a source of some confusion- not every shark fin for sale in markets is the result of shark finning! Shark finning means removing the fins from a shark while still on the fishing vessel and dumping the rest of the shark overboard. This is a problem because its wasteful (less than 10% of the weight of a shark is used), because its easy to quickly overfish a population even from a small boat (fins don’t take up a lot of space on board), and because its almost impossible for managers to know how many of each species were harvested. As stated above, this practice is also shockingly inhumane, as the sharks are often still alive when they are dumped overboard.