On June 1, 2021, I was invited to speak at Early Career Ocean Professionals Day, part of the kickoff for the United Nations Decade of the Ocean. The text of my remarks, with links to relevant references, is provided below.
Greetings to everyone watching virtual Early Career Ocean Professionals Day around the world! My name is Dr. David Shiffman, and I’m an interdisciplinary marine conservation biologist based in Washington, DC. I study threatened species of sharks, and how to effectively protect them. I also study the causes and consequences of public misunderstanding of these issues. In addition to research and teaching, I am a public science educator, and I invite you to follow me on twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @ WhySharksMatter, where I’m always happy to answer any questions anyone has about sharks.
Today I’d like to talk to you a little bit about my work on why we should protect sharks, how we can most effectively do that, what people think about this issues, and why all of this is important. First of all, no, sharks are not a threat to you or your family, despite what you may hear in inflammatory fearmongering news reports. Hundreds of millions of humans enter the ocean every year, and a few dozen are bitten—more people are killed by flowerpots falling on their heads from above in a typical year than are killed by sharks. Sharks also play vital roles in the healthy functioning of marine and coastal ecosystems, ecosystems that humans depend on for food security, livelihoods, and recreation. In short, people are better off with healthy shark populations off our coasts than we are without them.
Unfortunately, many species of sharks are threatened with extinction. The leading threat to sharks, by far, is unsustainable overfishing, including but not limited to unintentional bycatch. Sharks are caught around the world to support both local consumption and global markets for both shark meat, consumed like any other fish, and shark fins, made into a culturally important soup associated with traditional Chinese culture. Many people eat shark meat, some without even knowing it- some fish and chips served in the UK marketed as “rock salmon” is actually shark meat. You can buy two kinds of shark meat at the seafood counter at the grocery store near my parents’ house in Florida. The problem here is that sharks have relatively few young, relatively infrequently, relatively late in life, which means their life history doesn’t allow their populations to bounce back quickly from heavy fishing pressure.
The fact that unsustainable overfishing is a big problem does not mean that sustainable shark fisheries are impossible, or that the only solution is for everyone everywhere to stop eating fish and become vegan. There are many scientifically-backed sustainable fisheries for sharks around the world, and many currently unsustainable shark fisheries have the potential to be made sustainable with relatively minor changes to local fisheries management. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide lists several shark fisheries as “green/best choice” and many more as “yellow/ok choice.” In fact, my Ph.D. research found that huge majorities of shark scientists believe that sustainable shark fisheries are possible, exist in the world today, and should be the goal of shark conservation advocacy instead of banning shark fishing and sale of shark products whenever possible. Follow-up research has found that huge majorities of environmental non-profit advocates working on shark conservation issues agree.
If you consider yourself knowledgeable about ocean conservation issues and you’ve never before heard that people eat shark meat, or that sustainable shark fisheries exist and have expert support, you’re not alone. There is an absolutely enormous amount of both misinformation and disinformation about shark conservation, much of it fueled by social media. An analysis we conducted looking at how shark conservation is portrayed in the global English-speaking media found that the shark fin trade is mentioned more than four times as often as the shark meat trade, despite the meat trade being a large and growing threat to sharks and the huge decline in shark fin consumption. We also found that high-profile attempts to ban the sale of shark fins in the United States received more than twice as much media attention as all sustainable fisheries management tools combined, despite there being much more evidence that sustainable fisheries management actually works. The United States, after all, is involved in less than 1% of the global shark fin trade, and US shark fisheries are some of the most sustainable in the world– banning sustainable fisheries in one place has little effect on unsustainable fisheries elsewhere. And that survey of environmental non-profit advocates found that there is a small but vocal subset of environmentalists who never read scientific literature, never speak to scientists, and regularly say scary-sounding but wrong information about the state of the ocean. And this doesn’t even address the problem of well-intentioned but uninformed members of the public who start their own environmental campaigns, often in the form of online petitions, that waste everyone’s time and can’t possibly accomplish their stated goals. In some cases because these goals were already accomplished decades ago—online petitions asking Florida to ban shark finning in state waters would benefit from realizing that Florida banned shark finning in 1993. Such campaigns take resources and attention away from evidence-based data-driven conservation campaigns that have a chance to help.
Large-scale public misunderstanding of threats to sharks and the most appropriate policy solutions to those threats is harmful to shark conservation goals. Not only are we wasting the limited resources of the conservation movement on solutions that might not work at all- for example, some highly-touted marine protected areas designed to protect a particular shark species that aren’t even established where that species actually lives– but we’re taking proven solutions off the table. Similarly, my social media feeds have been buzzing with excitement about a proposed new UK regulation that restricts travelers from bringing a small amount of shark fins in their luggage, despite no evidence that travelers bringing shark fins with them poses any kind of serious problem to shark populations. Extremist rhetoric from the environmental fringe also leads to scientists and mainstream environmentalists receiving threats and harassment.
What can we do about this? Well, social media doesn’t just spread misinformation, it can also spread true and accurate information. I invite more credentialed, knowledgeable, experienced experts to join me on the front lines, pushing back against misunderstandings while spreading the word about solutions that we know actually work. And there’s no time to waste—while we’re arguing about this, sharks are being killed. Nearly 2,000 sharks have been killed during the course of my ten minute talk today.
If you’d like to learn more about these issues and how you can help, I’ll again invite you to follow me on social media @ WhySharksMatter