One year ago today, my book “Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator” was released. Science moves (relatively) rapidly and changes often, with new discoveries every day, and the conservation landscape is similar. This means that it is impossible for anything written about these topics at a discrete moment in time to remain accurate forever.
So, in the interest of accountability, in the interest of continuing to make my book useful for public education about shark science and conservation even as the science and policy landscape changes, and in the interest of keeping notes for myself for any future updated versions of the book, I have been keeping track of things that I wrote at the time that are no longer true, or weren’t quite right at the time. (Please note that some of these facts and figures were already out of date at the time the book was pubished, but that was well after the final text was turned in).
A few weeks ago, H.R. 5248, The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, was introduced into Congress. The purpose of this bill is to “encourage a science-based approach to significantly reduce the overfishing and unsustainable trade of sharks, rays and skates around the world and prevent shark finning,” according to a press release from Mote Marine Lab.
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.
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.
President, Shark Advocates International
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.
Earlier today SeaWorld announced to the media that it was making major changes in its practices when it comes to marine wildlife. The announcement comes after years of bad publicity and failing stock prices as the result of the documentary Blackfish, criticism from marine mammal and marine conservation scientists and an unrelenting social media campaign by online activists. The changes announced are a major paradigm shift for the company and include:
I’ve been critical of factual inaccuracy and fearmongering on Shark Week documentaries for years. But how big of a problem is this, and how do we know? I asked some of the authors of three recent scientific studies* to summarize the evidence.
Many species of sharks are in desperate need of conservation. Twenty-four percent of all known species of sharks, skates and rays are considered Threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List. Using a variety of different methods, scientists have documented rapid and severe population declines in many species of sharks all over the world.
Conservation requires public support. In a participatory democracy, new policies and regulations require some public support to pass. It’s easy to get public support to conserve cute and cuddly animals, but ugly animals need protection too. So do animals that scare people, like sharks.
Shark finning, the process of removing shark fins at sea and dumping the rest of the body, is nearly universally opposed by conservation activists, scientific researchers and fisheries managers. In addition to being potentially inhumane (the shark is often still alive when dumped overboard,) this processing method is exceptionally wasteful and makes it very difficult for fisheries managers to get accurate species-specific catch data.
There are severals ways to stop shark finning. One is to ban fishing for sharks entirely, fins of sharks can’t be removed at sea if sharks aren’t caught in the first place. It is important to note that some well-intentioned activists use “stop shark finning” as a synonym for “stop shark fishing of any kind,” but that is unequivocally not what shark finning is and not what finning bans accomplish. The second method is through the use of fin to carcass ratios. Under these policies, fisherman can remove the fins of sharks at sea as long as the total weight of fins landed does not exceed a certain percentage (usually 3.5 to 5%) of the total weight of carcasses landed. This can still leave room for some undetected finning (these ratios vary by species and fin removal method) and still makes it difficult for managers to know how many of each species are being caught (sharks are more readily identifiable when their fins are intact). Finally, a method growing in popularity in recent years, which is generally considered to be a best practice of shark fisheries management, is the requirement of landing all caught sharks with “fins naturally attached.”
In June of 2014, almost 400 of the world’s top shark researchers gathered in Durban, South Africa for the 2nd Sharks International conference. The four keynote presentations have just been put online.
Beyond Jaws: Rediscovering the “lost sharks” of South Africa
Dave Ebert, Moss Landing Marine Laboratory
Biography:Dave Ebert earned his Masters Degree at Moss Landing Marine Labs and his Ph.D. at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. He is currently the Program Director for the Pacific Shark Research Center, a research faculty member at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and an honorary research associate for the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity and the California Academy of Sciences Department of Ichthyology. He has been researching chondrichthyans around the world for nearly three decades, focusing his research on the biology, ecology and systematics of this enigmatic fish group. He has authored 13 books, including a popular field guide to the sharks of the world and most recently he revised the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Catalogue of Sharks of the World. He has published over 300 scientific papers and book chapters, and contributed approximately 100 IUCN Shark Specialist Group Red List species assessments. Dave is regional co-Chair of the IUCN Northeast Pacific Regional Shark Specialist Group, Vice Chair for taxonomy, and a member of the American Elasmobranch Society and Oceania Chondrichthyan Society. He has supervised more than 30 graduate students, and enjoys mentoring and helping develop aspiring marine biologists.
The 2010 Shark Conservation Act prohibits removal of fins at sea for all sharks landed in U.S. Waters, with a glaring exception for smooth dogfish, or smoothhound sharks. In an effort to ensure that fishermen aren’t performing the cruel practice of throwing a still-living but finless shark overboard, a fin:body ratio of 12% for smooth dogfish became law as part of this bill. This means that the total weight of smooth dogfish fins cannot be more than 12% of the total dressed weight of the bodies when the sharks are landed.
Some time ago I wrote a post questioning where this 12% ratio came from, especially since the best available published literature at the time suggested a ratio of only 3.5% for smooth dogfish. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Management Commission (ASMFC) responded, claiming that they had data backing up a find:body weight ratio of 7-12%. Now, thanks to the SEDAR stock assessment workshop for this species, the study conducted by the ASMFC is publicly available (albeit nearly four years after it was written into the law).
So where does this seemingly extremely high fin:body ratio come from? It depends on how you slice it.
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.