The United States Congress is considering a nationwide ban on buying, selling, or trading shark fins. While several of my posts and tweets have briefly discussed my stance on such policies, I’ve never laid out my full argument in one post. Here is why I, as a shark conservation biologist, oppose banning the shark fin trade within the United States. The short answer is that the US represents a tiny percentage of overall consumers of shark fin, but provide some of the most sustainably caught sharks on Earth, as well as important examples of successful management, to the world. This means that banning the US shark fin trade won’t reduce total shark mortality by very much, but will remove an important example of fins coming from a well-managed fishery while also hurting American fishermen who follow the rules. Also, a focus on these policies promotes the incorrect belief that shark fin soup is the only significant threat to sharks, and that addressing the tiny part of that problem locally represents the end of all threats. For the longer answer, read on. And for the case for shark fin bans, please see this guest post from Oceana scientist Mariah Pfleger.
The lesser electric ray, a small sand-dwelling ray that lives from North Carolina to Brazil, has been considered one of the most endangered marine fish on Earth. A 2005 paper reported that 98% of these rays had been wiped out, a decline attributed to shrimp trawling bycatch. This paper resulted in these animals getting classified as IUCN Red List “Critically Endangered,” the highest risk category for any species that is still found in the wild.
A new paper published today in the journal Endangered Species Research shows that these rays are in much better shape than previously believed. “There is no evidence of a decline in the relative abundance of lesser electric rays,” said Dr. John Carlson, a NOAA Fisheries Service Research Biologist and lead author of the new paper.
After a little more than 5 years of hard work, I’ve officially completed my Ph.D.! You can read my dissertation (“An Integrative and Interdisciplinary Approach to Shark Conservation: Policy Solutions, Ecosystem Role, and Stakeholder Attitudes”) online here in its entirety.
In case there are some among you who don’t really want to read a 281 page dissertation but are curious about what I found, I’ve prepared this blog post to summarize my key conclusions. (Note: this does not include every conclusion. Some are aggregated together, and some more technical conclusions are omitted for this summary).
Seb Pardo is a biologist currently doing a PhD at Simon Fraser University in Canada. He is broadly interested in the biology, ecology, and conservation of sharks and rays. At present, his research is focused on borrowing tools from evolutionary biology to predict the biology and extinction risk of poorly studied sharks and rays. By using these data-poor methods, he hopes to make the most out of currently available data to inform policy decisions relevant for the sustainable management of sharks and rays. His twitter handle is @sebpardo
Rays rarely get the same amount of attention as sharks do. Perhaps the most notable exception are the manta rays (genus Manta), which are charismatic, filter-feeding rays that inhabit warm waters throughout the world’s oceans. Their closest relatives, the devil rays (genus Mobula), are not nearly as “famous” — even though they are the only other members of the family Mobulidae. There are nine species of devil rays found throughout the world’s tropical and temperate oceans, and while they are smaller than mantas (only reach over 3 metres in width), devil and manta rays are so similar that they are sometimes confused with each other. Because devil rays garner less public interest, the are very few studies on their basic biology and ecology, hindering our ability to assess their status.
Devil and manta rays face similar threats. Both are often caught as bycatch in industrial and artisanal fishing operations, which may result in considerable mortality even after being released. On top of this, there has been an increase in the international demand for their gill plates, which are used a health tonic in Chinese medicine. This has increased targeted fishing and bycatch retention in many places around the world. However, because of the lack of information on devil rays, it is very difficult assess whether this level of catch and trade is sustainable. This is the key question we set out to answer.
Sonja Fordham founded Shark Advocates International as a project of The Ocean Foundation in 2010 based on her two decades of shark conservation experience at Ocean Conservancy. She is Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and Conservation Committee Chair for the American Elasmobranch Society, has co-authored numerous publications on shark fisheries management, and serves on most of the U.S. federal and state government advisory panels relevant to sharks and rays. Her awards include the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award, the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award, and the IUCN Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership.
A new study confirming the mysterious deepsea Greenland Shark as the world’s longest lived vertebrate has made huge news in the last few days – from Science News and BBC to People magazine and the Wall Street Journal. While some scientists are questioning whether these sharks live quite as long as estimated (392 years ± 120), most agree they could well live for a century or two and – as a result — are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Experts also warn that risks to Greenland sharks may be increasing as melting sea ice changes Arctic ecosystems and makes fishing in the region more feasible. Study authors are among those urging a precautionary approach to the species’ conservation. In other words, an incomplete picture of status and threats should not be used as an excuse for inaction. So what might be threatening Greenland sharks today, and which upcoming policy opportunities might warrant consideration, given worldwide interest in these jaw-dropping findings? To come up with some ideas, I first took a look back.
Dr. Glenn R. Parsons is a 30 year veteran in the battle against University Administrators, bean-counting bureaucrats, and disinterested students (i.e. he is a Professor at Ole Miss). In his spare time he conducts research work on fish physiology and ecology and has published many papers on shark biology, primarily Gulf of Mexico species. He is author of the seminal book on sharks of the Gulf of Mexico entitled “Sharks, Skates and Rays of the Gulf of Mexico” and a popular novel entitled “Cherokee Summer” that could have been on the New York Times best seller list (if only it was better written and was backed by a high-powered agent like John Grisham’s). He received his PhD from the University of South Florida, School of Marine Science, MS from the University of South Alabama and BS from the University of Alabama. He was a DISL Marine Research Fellow, a Gulf Research Council Research Fellow, and a winner of a World Wildlife Fund, Smartgear Competition (for his bycatch research).
Folks, The world has witnessed an unparalleled decline in sharks that began about 30 years ago and has continued to the present. While the explanations for this decline are varied, scientists are in agreement that “bycatch” during fishing is one of the problems. Bycatch is the un-intended capture of non-target species during fishing. For example, commercial fishing for tuna and swordfish results in the capture of many sharks. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 50,000,000 sharks are taken as bycatch during commercial fishing. Unfortunately, many of these sharks do not survive the stress of capture (a topic that my lab has researched for many years). Fishers do not want these sharks (they are dangerous to handle and they damage fishing gear) and they would welcome new developments that would reduce or eliminate shark capture.
Julia Wester is the Director of Program Development for Field School. She received her PhD from the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami in 2016. Her dissertation studied the psychology of decision making about the environment, specifically with regard to limited water resources. She also received a Msc with Distinction in Biodiversity Conservation and Management from Oxford University and worked as a Legislative Aide in South Florida, focusing on environmental policy. She has consulted with nonprofit programs to evaluate their educational programs and assisted with training staff to conduct effective public outreach.
The folks at Southern Fried Science, as part of their commitment to research and education, have generously given us this platform to talk about our educational start-up, Field School. (Thanks, SFS!). They’ve also been kind enough to get excited about working with us to develop and test new research techniques, study awesome animals and ecosystems, and improve marine science field education—so stay tuned for some of those upcoming collaborations!
What is field school?
Field School is a hybrid company on a mission to support field research in marine and environmental science, and create high-quality educational and training opportunities for students and the public. We offer hands-on, research focused courses on a variety of topics, from corals to sharks, on our 55’ custom live-aboard research vessel.
Part of what makes Field School special is the team we’ve brought together. Our captain and crew all have doctoral and/or masters degrees in marine or environmental science, have authored numerous scientific publications, and have a combined 25 years of experience in field education and outreach. We have developed short- and long-term training and mentoring opportunities for students, teach highly reviewed and award-winning university courses, and work with partner non-profits to create outreach programs for the public. We collaborate closely with our scientific advisory board and partner universities to develop the conservation and research projects our students work on, ensuring their time in our courses is professionally relevant and meaningful.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture organization just released fisheries and agriculture technical paper number 590, “the state of the global market for shark products.” Coauthored by legendary shark conservation researcher Shelley Clarke, this 196 page document is a comprehensive look at, um, the state of the global market for shark products.
It includes an updated review of threats to sharks and the conservation and management mechanisms that governments are used to protect them. If you’re interested in shark conservation, you should read it. If you’re interested in shark conservation but don’t want to read a 196 page technical document, I’ve selected 28 important quotes, facts, and graphs from the report. These are organized into the following four categories (categories which can be used as a TL;DR summary of the entire report):
A) The global trade in shark meat is growing and is significantly different from the fin trade (despite not getting anywhere near the same attention from conservation activists and the media as the fin trade).
B) Many, many countries other than China are involved in the global trade in shark and ray products (despite not getting anywhere near the same attention from conservation activists and the media as China).
C) Many species and populations of skates, rays, and smaller sharks are highly traded (despite not getting anywhere near the same attention from conservation activists and the media as larger, charismatic species).
D) Global trade is complex, and we need a lot more data from governments of shark fishing and trading nations to effectively track trends in shark product use (i.e. science and record-keeping are critical for conservation, and not all important conservation work is glamorous or exciting).
If you have ever dealt with scientific data, you’ve probably encountered one of the shadier sides of science: academic publishing. While they’ve stood, in some cases, for centuries, as the official record of scientific advancement safeguarded under the watchful eye of peers, modern journals live in a modern world. Millions of words have already been spilled on the subject, so that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I’m left asking whether academic publishing is the only means of getting the stamp of peer-review these days?
The reasons leading me to ask this question are many, but primarily through working in a management arena lately. One example, in particular, highlighted many of the disconnects between the need for verified scientific data and the incentives of journals. This moment was at a Chesapeake Bay Program Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team meeting (for those of you not in the Chesapeake region, that’s a consortium of regional fisheries managers), where a room full of decision-makers needed a verified stock assessment of blue crabs to move forward with their management planning. Peer-review is the time-tested, well-understood, and arguably easiest means of verifying data. Read More
OPAH, OPAH, OPAH!
Recently scientists at NOAA’s South West Fisheries Science Center made a stunning discovery, the worlds first known warm-blooded fish, the moonfish, opah (Lampris guttatus). Until this recent discovery all fish were considered cold-blooded ectotherms – allowing their body temperature to fluctuate with the change in ambient ocean temperature. However, opah’s are different, in that these largely solitary fish regulate their internal body temperature above the ambient temperature of their environment like mammals and birds (other warm-blooded animals).