A recent proposal in New Zealand to outlaw shark finning received more than 45,000 public comments from all over the world, a staggering amount of public interest in fisheries policy. This is great news, because though many activists don’t really know what it means, shark finning is a major threat. Shark finning may well be the most brutal and wasteful method of gathering food in the history of human civilization, and New Zealand was one of the few developed nations that still legally allowed any form of the practice. Though there are still some significant issues with New Zealand’s proposal, it was still very exciting to see so much public passion for an issue that few cared about, or even knew about, when I was growing up.
However, a finning ban is merely a first step, for the most part only controlling how sharks are killed, not how many are killed. A recent study showed that finning bans alone were insufficient to ensure sustainable fisheries. In many nations (including the United States), the interested public has a role to play in implementing all or most of the next steps a comprehensive sustainable fisheries policy for sharks and other fishes. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen anywhere near the same level of public engagement in other shark conservation issues as we see for big, flashy issues like bans on finning.
For example, dusky sharks are considered heavily overfished in the United States, with one estimate for time to rebuild the stock exceeding 400 years (yes, the U.S. government currently has conservation plans whose time scale exceeds how long there has been a U.S. government). A recent proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service that would have altered the minimum size of sharks that recreational fishermen can catch with the goal of reducing illegal dusky shark landings and added a new area closed to shark fishing received almost no public support from conservation activists. There were a total of 122 public comments submitted, and most were strongly opposed; the commercial and recreational fishing industry was organized and vocal in their opposition to this plan. The NMFS withdrew it.
As low as it was (122 comments is much lower than 45,000) , the dusky shark proposal actually demonstrated a relatively high amount of public interest compared to other important shark and ray conservation issues involving dogfish, sawfish, and thorny skates, not to mention broader issues like bycatch or habitat destruction. It can be hard to get the public to be interested and passionate in less flashy, but no less important issues. This is unfortunate because many of the most critical steps in a shark conservation and management plan can’t fit on a bumper sticker.
The passion of the online shark conservation community is high, but the average level of understanding of how conservation policy works is… not high. People care about the problem and want to help, but many don’t know how. It can be incredibly demoralizing to see that passion channeled into useless petitions, or simply not channeled into lots of important issues. How can we best take public enthusiasm and turn it into useful action that promotes a comprehensive shark conservation plan? (Seriously. How? I don’t know.)
Please leave your suggestions below as comments!