Hi everyone. I’m Chuck and I used to blog primarily over at Ya Like Dags?, where my main focus was on interactions between apex predators (sharks mostly, but I also occasionally dabbled in other large fish and sea mammals) and those other top marine predators, humans. This was not in the “shark attack” sense, but in the context of fisheries management. Writing about this subject and living it as part of my research have given me valuable perspective on marine science and conservation that I really didn’t have as a freshly-minted Bachelor of Science.
Unfortunately I see more extreme versions of my old perspective show up in countless blog comments, posts, and tweets by perfectly well-meaning people whose only issue is that they’ve fallen for a simplistic, “us vs. them” attitude towards conservation. Consumptive uses of the ocean, such as fishing, are inherently evil and must be opposed. This no-compromise approach sounds cool and may bring in the TV ratings, but is it truly helpful?
Continue reading Inaugural Post: Fishermen Are Not Evil
The least-impacted places in the ocean are mainly in the deep sea, but as fishing technology has improved, even seamounts, sponge gardens and deep-sea coral beds are no longer out of reach of our appetites for seafood. Bottom trawling, which involves dragging a heavy weighted net along the seabed, is so destructive to benthic habitats that it has been compared to clear-cutting a forest. Bottom gillnetting catches almost anything that swims into them (and isn’t smaller than the mesh size), resulting in enormous levels of bycatch.
A (simplified) schematic of a bottom trawl. This one (on the NOAA vessel Henry Bigelow) is used for scientific sampling, not fishing, but it’s the same principle on a smaller scale. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The deep-sea fishing fleet of the European Union is one of the largest in the world, which is why it was so heartening to see the European Commission call for a phase-out of trawls and bottom gillnets recently. The Marine Conservation Institute, a longtime leader in marine protected areas, has obtained over 100 signatures (including mine) from marine scientists supporting a phase-out of bottom trawls and bottom gillnets by the EU fishing fleet. If you are a scientist who supports this measure, please consider adding your signature. This can be done by e-mailing [email protected] and including your name, institutional affiliation, degree, title, and full mailing address. Please note that MCI is primarily interested in signatures from the scientific community, and that simply posting a comment on this blog post is not equivalent to signing the petition.However, feel free to post a comment letting us know that you contacted MCI!
The full text of the petition can be seen after the jump:
Continue reading More than 100 marine scientists call for protecting the deep sea from trawling. Will you join us?
A menhaden, image courtesy Pew Environment Group
Despite their small size and plain appearance, menhaden have been called “the most important fish in the sea” because numerous coastal fish species rely on them for food. Although they aren’t typically eaten by humans, there is still a huge fishery for them for bait, aquaculture food, and oil. That fishery has been essentially unregulated, allowing fishermen to take as many as they want. Recently, there’s been a campaign among certain environmental groups to fix this problem and put catch limits in place for menhaden.
I was surprised to see PolitiFact, a non-partisan political fact-checking website, address this issue. I’ve checked PolitiFact pretty regularly for years, and I’ve never seen them cover a topic like this before. They focused on a claim by the Pew Environment Group that “In recent years, menhaden numbers along our coast have plummeted by 90 percent.” While I admit I am not familiar with specific details of menhaden population trends, anyone who has paid any attention at all to the ocean knows that we’re overfishing at alarming rates. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 1/3 of all global fisheries are depleted or overexploited, many by more than the 90% referenced for menhaden. Shockingly, PolitiFact called the claim by Pew “mostly false”. Their reasoning for this ruling is even more ridiculous than the ruling itself:
Continue reading PolitiFact calls claims of menhaden declines “Mostly False”, is completely wrong
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.
Image from Jessica King, Marine Photobank
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.
Continue reading 5 things you need to know about the proposed European Union shark finning ban, including how you can help
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.
Continue reading What shark finning means (and doesn’t mean): a primer and quiz
Mermaids depicted by a Russian folk artist. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons via New York Public Library
Last week, Animal Planet aired a fictional mockumentary about mermaids. From an educational perspective, it was a disaster that was rightfully described as “the rotting carcass of science television” by Brian Switek. As Dr. M on Deep Sea News pointed out, one of the troubling results of this TV special was the discovery that some people believe that mermaids are real.
When I pointed out on Facebook and twitter that mermaids do not exist and that I hoped none of my friends believe otherwise, it inspired a long and interesting discussion. Someone asked why it matters if people believe in mermaids, as they felt that a sense of whimsy among the public is a good thing. Someone pointed out that scientists are discovering amazing new species all the time. More than a few people said “anything is possible.”
Sure, scientists discover new species all the time, but while finding a new species of monkey, orchid, or jellyfish can be interesting, it is not proof that “anything is possible” and it is not the same thing as finding a species of talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies. There’s a big and important difference between enjoying fantasy novels and wishing that certain fantastical creatures exist (i.e. having a sense of whimsy) and genuinely believing that those creatures really do exist.
These people don’t believe that in the vast and unexplored ocean, there may be some bizarre undiscovered species still out there. They believe that talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies exist and are acknowledged as existing by the scientific community. This displays a troubling lack of awareness of reality that likely is not limited to a belief in mermaids. For the benefit of those who have paid so little attention to what’s going on in the real world that they believe mermaids exist, here are five other things that you should, but likely do not, know about the oceans.
Continue reading Mermaids do not exist, and five other important things people should, but do not, know about the ocean
Earlier this week, I asked my twitter followers what they thought about shark fin bans, which prompted a long and stimulating discussion. What follows is my first attempt at “Storify”, shared in the hopes that the discussion can continue here.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a big supporter of shark fin bans because they don’t allow for sustainable, well-managed fisheries to supply the market. Additionally, they promote the common (and false) belief that shark fin soup is the only major problem facing sharks, and don’t address many of the other important issues associated with shark conservation.
Instead, I favor a comprehensive approach to shark management, including requiring that sharks be landed with fins attached (i.e. a ban on “finning” but the fins can still be used if the shark is landed whole), special protections for threatened and endangered species, science-based fisheries quotas for species that can sustain fishing, time/area closures or gear restrictions when necessary, and careful monitoring (including requiring that all fishing nations report the species composition of their catch).
Check out the great discussion if you missed it, and let me know what you think of this important issue in the comments of this post.
Continue reading Shark fin bans: A storify of this week’s twitter discussion