In forty-eight hours, and amidst the largest peacetime deployment of a military force in any nation’s capitol, President Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. Biden will inherit a civil service bureaucracy that has been deconstructed by the twice-impeached President Trump. To build back a federal government that has been decimated and demoralized, President-Elect Biden has begun rolling out nominees for critical agencies throughout the federal government. And though these appointments have been met will enthusiasm from the environmental and scientific community, a nagging question lingers among America’s Ocean Stakeholders:
Donald F. Trump hates sharks. We learned that in 2013, when, during an entirely uncontroversial discussion about shark conservation foundations on Twitter, the would-be President of the United States of America blocked a small cohort of marine scientists.
Gracing David Shiffman and myself with a timeline blissfully free of his insufferable Tweets for eight years was the only good thing he has ever done for the ocean.
Initially, it appeared as though Trump’s war on the oceans would take a backseat to his other social, judicial, and environmental atrocities. Though a troubling selection for a host of reasons, Wilbur Ross’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce was seen as a relatively non-threatening move. His letter to NOAA staff, reassuring them that his department would continue to follow best-available science, was met with praise. His initial leadership appointments received bipartisan support.
It is clear now in hindsight, that that initial optimism was intensely naïve.
[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Good afternoon and thank you all for
coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about
what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like
because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary
shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.
This is the Area. Areas Beyond National
Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the
portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust
by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of
Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of
the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures
intend to operate.
I spent last week in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the
Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba
Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international
team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.
I first met Irene in 2014 when she invited me to give a keynote speech at the European Elasmobranch Association and have kept in touch with her through the years, mostly through Twitter. Irene has been working in shark conservation for 15 years, both in Europe and the Caribbean. She runs the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, which she founded together with Dr. Paddy Walker in 2010.
From 2015 to 2018 she worked as the Netherlands project
lead in the Save our Sharks project of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance.
This project aimed to improve all aspects of shark protection in the Dutch
Caribbean through legislation, education, management, and science. The project has ended but the Save our Sharks
brand is still used for shark science and conservation work in the islands.
I sat down with Irene and asked her five questions:
Bucky: What is your role on this expedition?
Irene: I am the expedition leader. I’m in charge of making sure everyone knows where they have to be and what they need to do. I do this together with Dr. Walker, who took on the lead role after I left the expedition a few days before the official end. Paddy and I founded the Dutch Elasmobranch Society together in 2010, a science-based NGO dedicated to the management and protection of elasmobranchs in the Dutch Kingdom.
Bucky: How does the work you do contribute to global efforts to protect sharks?
Irene: My main job is helping policy makers to take the right decision on shark and fisheries management. For example, here in the Dutch Caribbean the Dutch Elasmobranch Society is the main adviser to the Dutch government on shark management and the measures needed to make the Yarari Shark Sanctuary a success. Together with local partners we wrote the proposals to get several sharks and ray species listed on the SPAW protocol, the only cross border legal protection instrument for the Caribbean region.
Bucky: Why are sharks important to you?
Irene: My background is in ecology, so when I think of heathy oceans that should include all parts of the ecosystem. Sharks are a really good indicator of ecosystem wellbeing; to be able to sustain healthy, diverse shark and ray populations all elements of the system need be to in good shape. We need to protect everything from the corals and to whale sharks.
Bucky: How are we going to save the world’s sharks?
Irene: I am a firm believer in a holistic approach to management. Putting a species on a list like CITES, CMS, SPAW is an important first step. But you also need to have sensible implementation on the ground linked to effective control and enforcement. Plus, to ensure you get buy in by the people who are affected or have to carry out the protective work you need to communicate on what you want to achieve and why throughout the chain. And lastly all needs to be grounded in sound science to ensure what you do actually makes a difference in the water and for sharks. My mantra is we need to get the science we need to deliver the policy we want.
Bucky: What advice would you give to young scientists interested in a conservation careers?
Irene: Dream big! Here I am, a girl from Amsterdam who started out as a malacologist (snail specialist) leading an expedition to one of the most interesting places in the world to start up research projects which will help us protect sharks. Somebody pinch me! There’s no clear path that led me here, the only clear thread I see is that I tend not to take the safe option when it comes to career choices and I never gave up.
The Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 runs from July 15-25.
You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag
#SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts
on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
My Postdoctoral research has focused on understanding the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding about shark fisheries management. While scientists overwhelmingly support sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark overfishing, many concerned citizens and conservation activists prefer total bans on all shark fishing and trade. Some go so far as to (wrongly) claim that sustainable shark fisheries cannot exist even in theory and do not exist in practice anywhere in the world, and that bans are the only possible solution.
There’s an important piece of data that very rarely makes it into these discussions. Amidst the ongoing discussions about whether or not sustainable shark fisheries are even possible, one right in my backyard became the first shark fishery anywhere in the world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn. I couldn’t find any information in the MSC reports, or in associated scientific literature or government reports, that explained what happened to this fishery, which was thriving until recently. No scientists, managers, or conservation advocates who I asked about this knew exactly what happened to BC’s spiny dogfish fishery.
Yesterday the Trump Administration unveiled its proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. This budget contains steep cuts research, education, and social services in order to fund the construction of the border wall. Chief among the cuts is an unprecedented reduction in funding for NOAA, which functionally disbands several core research programs within Ocean Services. From A Budget for a Better America:
“The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for several lower priority NOAA grant and education programs, including Sea Grant, Coastal Zone Management Grants, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund.”
Rumblings on the hill suggest that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross plans to unveil his own plan to drastically reduce the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and permanently hamstring NOAA in furtherance of the Administration’s goal to find funding to construct a wall on the US southern border.
These cuts include zeroing out the budget for the following agencies and programs:
NOAA Coastal Zone Management Program
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)
Pacific Salmon Restoration Program
Potentially at least one fisheries laboratory
These cuts would be catastrophic America’s Coastal Communities and Economies, especially in places like North Carolina, Maryland, and Louisiana.
Earlier this year, Andrew issued his Summer Science Outreach Challenge: Write an Op-Ed. Inspired, I thought I would straight up steal Andrew’s idea and give a few tips on writing an effective advocacy letter, the type of letter you’d send to a government official to ask them to help protect the ocean.
In my conservation career I’ve written hundreds of letters to all levels of government, from agency staff to presidents. Advocacy letters are one of the more effective tools in the arsenal of conservation tactics. They are a great way of communicating a message directly to a targeted person (assuming the letter gets read, of course!) and are a great way to kick off a discussion on protecting the ocean between concerned citizens and government officials. Here are a few tips: Read More
After years of scientists and conservationists complaining about problems with common land-based shark fishing practices, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is finally taking action! At their April meeting, FWC formally announced that they are considering revising regulations governing this activity with the goal of restricting the unnecessary and cruel handling practices that result in killing protected species of sharks.
Overall concerns include a lack of understanding of the problem (including but not limited to the fact that much of the harmful ocean plastic is small and well-dispersed), insufficient structural integrity for a large object that will be deployed in the open ocean (which would result in the object breaking and creating even more ocean garbage), and the fact that this device is designed to aggregate objects of a certain size to remove them from the water but cannot distinguish between plastic and living things.
Mainstream media coverage has been noticeably less critical of the Ocean Cleanup, often presenting the idea as revolutionary and it’s creator as a genius.
Artist’s conception of the Ocean Cleanup, from TheOceanCleanup.com
I am not an expert in ocean plastic pollution. However, the uncritical tone of most mainstream media coverage of the Ocean Cleanup does not seem to correspond with my impression of expert opinion on this matter from speaking with expert colleagues who study this.
Through professional contacts, I developed a list of 51 ocean plastic pollution experts who work in academia, government, and the environmental non-profit sector, and I sent them some questions about the Ocean Cleanup. 15 (4 in academia, 5 each in government and the non-profit sector, and 1 in industry) agreed to participate in an anonymous survey. While this is not (and not intended to be) an exhaustive survey of the entire field of ocean plastic pollution, the broad agreement among a diverse group of experts is telling. Below, please see what they had to say through some representative quotes. Some respondents chose to provide an on-the-record quote, while many chose to remain anonymous out of concerns about reprisal.
I also asked Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of the Ocean Cleanup, to respond to these concerns. Her comments are included in each section.
Note: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is holding a public meeting on April 25th which will include the issue of land-based recreational shark fishing. Part of my dissertation research focused on this topic, so I am submitting expert testimony, but since I no longer live in Florida I am submitting it remotely. I am sharing my testimony here. Anyone else who is interested in attending the meeting in person (Fort Lauderdale Marriott on April 25th), or submitting testimony remotely, is free to quote my talking points below if the appropriate references are cited.
Dear Chair Rivard, Vice Chair Spottswood, Commissioner Kellam, Commissioner Lester, Commissioner Nicklaus, Commissioner Rood, and Commissioner Sole of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC),
My name is Dr. David Shiffman, and I studied land-based shark fishing in Florida as part of my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. This research was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Fisheries Research (here’s a link to an open access copy) and covered in major media outlets including National Geographic, Nature, and the Miami Herald. Accordingly, I would like to provide expert testimony for your April 25th public hearing on this topic. Since I no longer reside in Florida I am submitting this testimony remotely. As a conservation biologist who spent years studying harmful practices among some elements of the land-based Florida shark fishing community, I am grateful to see FWC holding a public meeting that includes this important issue, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
Overall, the scientific evidence is clear and overwhelming that while many anglers are rule-following and conservation-minded, many common land-based shark fishing practices represent a significant conservation threat to threatened, protected shark species in Florida. Additionally, the evidence is clear and overwhelming that in many cases anglers are breaking existing laws and regulations, and that in some of those cases the anglers are aware that they are breaking the law and are explicitly stating that they don’t care. Finally, the evidence is clear and overwhelming that many of the arguments put forward by land-based anglers in support of the status quo are not argued in good faith, and are intentionally crafted to misrepresent the facts of the situation.
It is obvious to me, and to many expert colleagues with whom I have discussed this issue, that the FWC can and must do more to protect threatened sharks, building off of early successes that made Florida a leader in shark conservation. Specifically, the FWC can and must do more to regulate these harmful practices, enforce clear violations of existing regulations, and educate anglers about these issues. Below I will elaborate on each of these points and propose specific regulatory, enforcement, and public education changes that can be made to protect sharks without significantly infringing on anyone’s rights. I will also counter several common arguments that are put forth by bad actors in the recreational angling community.