Can social science save the sharks? A recent article in Progress in Oceanography by Peter Jacques seems to think so, calling for a “social oceanography”. In other circles, this could be known as the human dimensions of a marine ecosystem or the social side of a socioecological system. Either way, the field exists already. However, it’s small and generally not recognized outside of purely academic circles. It may be time for us to step outside of our comfort zone.
Anthropological studies have been extensively carried out in fishing communities to the point that some consider fishers an overstudied population. Such studies have not been completed in the shark fishery, likely for a number of reasons. Jacques pointed out through their literature review that sharks are far less likely to be studied than other commercial species, such as tuna (there are 50% more articles on tuna despite having an order of magnitude less species). In addition, “there is and has never been any shark-centered international binding agreement, protocol, amendment, treaty or convention”. That makes analysis of the international policy failures rather difficult. Sharks generally need more research in every discipline if we’re going to save them.
The authors did a fairly standard content analysis of international conservation discourse and agreements, discovering that sharks were very rarely discussed, if at all. This, they hypothesize, leaves them drastically unprotected for their population status.
Gaining research access for a worthy social scientific exploration of sharks also may prove difficult, as good data relies on cooperation from the fishers, consumers, biologists, and policymakers that make up the pool of research subjects. Such cooperation would be difficult as there is a growing stigma about eating shark fins and definitely a hesitancy to share the gory details about how the sharks are caught and processed. One could expect lots of fabricated stories.
That being said, the task is not impossible. The authors argue for a “social oceanography”, not just a study of the human dimensions of shark ecosystems. Though the notion that adding a social component to oceanography may seem as easy as inviting one more researcher to the table, the proposal is a bit naïve in thinking that there could be just one key person that needs including. The social sciences span many disciplines with distinct cultures, perspectives, and utility in analyzing marine ecosystems. From anthropology to geography to sociology, each should be included, but to what degree are we really willing to support a whole new research team?
Jacques said it himself, defining his social oceanography as “an eclectic discursive space…to iterate multiple social science approaches” and warns “such a project is not one that simply plugs in social science to biological models”.
Drastic changes in funding and even the philosophy of ‘wilderness’ would have to take place before a true ‘social oceanography’ could emerge. The idea that saving sharks is a matter of understanding their life history and protecting the most vulnerable stages from human activity just begins to scratch the surface of the complex system that needs to be analyzed and understood before effective interventions can be implemented. The fundamental underpinning that sharks can never be placed in a world free of human influence needs to made explicit before further research of any kind can truly be useful to conservation.
That being said, there’s a growing community of conservation social sciences found in departments ranging from sociology to natural resources. Will we help study sharks? Absolutely. Someone just has to help us find funding. And as Jacques uncovered, that might be the bigger challenge.
~Bluegrass Blue Crab
Jacques, P. (2010). The social oceanography of top oceanic predators and the decline of sharks: a call for a new field Progress In Oceanography DOI: 10.1016/j.pocean.2010.04.001