Happy Monday-est Monday!
Foghorn (A Call to Action!)
Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)
Photo credit: Jessica King, Marine Photobank
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.
Carcharocles megalodon, commonly known as the megalodon, was likely the largest shark that ever lived. I say “was”, because despite claims by certain Discovery Channel “documentaries”, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the megalodon is extinct and has been for millions of years.
It isn’t surprising, though, that the largest shark that ever lived has such an impact on pop culture. Recently, we watched the latest in the spectacular “mega shark vs.” science fiction series, one of my favorite movie series based on extinct giant sharks coming back to life and wreaking havoc on the modern world. The Southern Fried Scientist, who recently calculated how much Old Bay seasoning you’d need to properly cook the latest Aquaman villain, asked me how much shark fin soup you could get from an adult megalodon.
Based on my calculations, the answer is about 70,000 bowls of shark fin soup, more than enough for everyone who lives in Greenland to have a bowl. Explaining where this number comes from can tell us a lot abTTout one of the most important ocean conservation issues facing the world today.
In 1999, government officials from all over the world gathered in Rome for a meeting of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Committee on Fisheries. The Committee meets every two years, but one of the numerous outputs of this meeting was particularly significant, at least for sharks. Based on years of consultation and discussion by experts, the group agreed on a formal set of general principles that should make up sustainable and well-managed shark fisheries.
These 10 principles, part of a larger International Plan of Action for Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) , have helped shape more than a decade of scientific research and management priorities for the chondrichthyan fishes. When properly implemented and enforced, they allow people to use sharks (and rays and skates and chimeras, included in the IPOA-Sharks definition of “sharks”) as a natural resource while keeping populations healthy and allowing depleted stocks to recover.
According to the IPOA-Sharks, a national shark plan should aim to:
Photo Credit: Jessica King, Marine Photobank
I’ve written in the past about why shark fin bans might not be the best tool for the conservation and management of sharks. Though specific details vary, these so-called “blanket bans” typically make it illegal for anyone to buy, sell, or possess shark fins regardless of the source *. Additionally, to date most of these fin bans have taken place in a few U.S. states and Canadian towns. If the goal of these state-level fin bans is to reduce the supply of fins to the global market, proponents should consider that according to TRAFFIC, more than 95% of the supply of shark products comes from countries outside of the U.S. and Canada. Even if every U.S. state passed a fin ban, it would have a negligible direct impact on global supply. Additionally, the United States has some of the most sustainably managed shark fisheries in the world (hammerhead sharks and a few others are an exception). We want other countries to emulate out management practices, not to remove our management practices from the global marketplace.
If the goal of these local fin bans is to reduce global demand, proponents should consider that the overwhelming majority of the demand for shark fin soup is in China and Southeast Asia, where passing such bans will pose a significant challenge. Some proponents of fin bans say (after the negligible impact on supply and demand is pointed out) that fin bans help with “raising awareness of the problem of overfishing of sharks”. While these fin bans do result in (relatively) positive media coverage for shark conservation, “raising awareness” is not the publicly stated goal of these bans. If your goal is to educate people about a problem, educate people about the problem.
Instead of inflexible and ineffective fin bans that penalize fishermen who have adopted best practices * without impacting the global market, I’ve advocated for a science-based approach to sustainable shark management following the 10 basic principles in line with what has been laid out in the United Nations Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization’s International Plan of Action for Sharks and IUCN Shark Specialist Group guidance. These principles include banning finning of sharks by requiring that carcasses be landed whole (recall that finning is a specific fishing practice not synonymous with the fin trade), using science-based quotas to manage the fisheries of sharks whose populations can support a fishery, and restricting the harvest of species whose populations cannot.
Recently, the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (which, once again, manages some of the most sustainable shark fisheries on Earth) has started to officially speak out against state level fin bans.
If interested citizens want to get involved in conservation and management policy, it’s absolutely vital to use proper terminology. The policy world can be full of confusing jargon, but there are few ways to discredit yourself in the eyes of decision makers as quickly as using a critical term incorrectly. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for a decision maker’s response to a petition or public comment to consist entirely of correcting inaccurate terminology, if a response is issued at all. There are well over 100 acronyms and terms that I’ve seen regularly used, but in the interest of brevity, I’ve selected what I believe to be the 15 most important terms that I’ve seen people repeatedly use incorrectly.
For each term, I’ve provided a definition from a scientific paper or technical report whenever possible. I have also provided some additional explanation in my own words, and some assistance from familiar memes. Whenever possible, I’ve linked to blog posts, articles, or websites that provide even more information. Most of these terms are broadly applicable to fisheries management policy, but some are specific to shark fisheries. It is not my intention with this post to strongly advocate for or against any specific policy (I do plenty of that with other posts), but to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.
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.
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).
Shark finning, one of the most wasteful, unsustainable, and inhumane methods of gathering food in the history of human civilization, has rightly become a hot topic in the marine conservation movement. However, there is a great deal of confusion among activists concerning this problem and the best way to solve it. Those of you who follow me on twitter have seen me point out numerous recent anti-finning “awareness campaigns” which feature photographs of sharks that have not actually been finned.
Shark finning does not mean removing the fins from a shark. This is really important and seems to be a source of some confusion- not every shark fin for sale in markets is the result of shark finning! Shark finning means removing the fins from a shark while still on the fishing vessel and dumping the rest of the shark overboard. This is a problem because its wasteful (less than 10% of the weight of a shark is used), because its easy to quickly overfish a population even from a small boat (fins don’t take up a lot of space on board), and because its almost impossible for managers to know how many of each species were harvested. As stated above, this practice is also shockingly inhumane, as the sharks are often still alive when they are dumped overboard.
Earlier this week, I asked my twitter followers what they thought about shark fin bans, which prompted a long and stimulating discussion. What follows is my first attempt at “Storify”, shared in the hopes that the discussion can continue here.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a big supporter of shark fin bans because they don’t allow for sustainable, well-managed fisheries to supply the market. Additionally, they promote the common (and false) belief that shark fin soup is the only major problem facing sharks, and don’t address many of the other important issues associated with shark conservation.
Instead, I favor a comprehensive approach to shark management, including requiring that sharks be landed with fins attached (i.e. a ban on “finning” but the fins can still be used if the shark is landed whole), special protections for threatened and endangered species, science-based fisheries quotas for species that can sustain fishing, time/area closures or gear restrictions when necessary, and careful monitoring (including requiring that all fishing nations report the species composition of their catch).
Check out the great discussion if you missed it, and let me know what you think of this important issue in the comments of this post.
WhySharksMatter and a whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium
The world’s largest shark eats only plankton, couldn’t bite a human if it wanted to, and is one of the few sharks that could be reasonably described as beautiful. Globally, SCUBA divers pay an estimated $50 million each year for the chance to swim with these incredible fish. Their long migrations through international waters makes international cooperation necessary to protect them, which is particularly important because the 30 years it can take for these animals to reach reproductive maturity means that populations will take a long time to recover if they are overexploited. They’re listed by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group as Vulnerable globally. Between their charismatic nature, their inability to harm humans, and their value to ecotourism, it should be easy to convince governments to protect whale sharks *, making two recent reports all the more shocking.