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However, a few years after BC’s spiny dogfish fishery got certified, the certification was quietly withdrawn.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.
Though the devil is always in the details, and I’ll get into those below, here is a general overview of how this would work. The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act would direct NOAA Fisheries to evaluate the fisheries management practices of other shark and ray fishing nations. This is similar in principle to other things NOAA is already doing, and a similar role for NOAA was included in the 2010 Shark Conservation Act (but has yet to be implemented).
Nations that have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours (or certain fisheries associated with those nations, even if other fisheries are less well managed) will get a formal certification of their sustainable management practices, and nothing will change for them. Nations (or fisheries) that are found to not have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours will not be allowed to have those products imported into the US and sold in our markets until their management practices improve. In the meantime, they’ll have access to NOAA’s existing capacity building resources and expertise to improve their own practices.
I support much of what this bill is trying to do, but I have some significant concerns about some of the current phrasing and plan for implementation.
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).