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


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.