Today, David Shiffman puts forth his take on where we go from here to turn the tide on practices that put shark populations at risk, including finning, bycatch and David’s personal roadmap for how to help sharks.
To paraphrase an old joke about my fellow Jews, if you ask three conservationists what their goal is, you’ll likely get four answers. This post is about my goal, which isn’t necessarily the goal of the entire save the sharks movement. I expect that many of my conservationist friends will disagree with parts of it, and I look forward to a lively discussion.
We know from The Problem that sharks are being harvested (or killed accidentally as bycatch) at wildly unsustainable rates. This needs to stop, and sharks need some strong legal protections.
The form that these legal protections will take is the subject of much debate. A (very) few countries like Palau make fishing for sharks in any form illegal in their territorial waters. Hawaii now bans the selling, purchasing, or possession of shark fins within state boundaries. U.S. fisheries management policy presently makes it illegal to kill some species of shark and sets size limits on some other species. However, most countries have no legal protection at all for sharks, and the number of species with worldwide protection (at least on paper, since these are difficult to enforce in the middle of the ocean) can be counted on one hand.
Though this may shock some of my readers, I do not think that global shark conservation policy needs to be as extreme as Palau’s “you can’t kill any sharks ever” law. I do not object to the sustainable harvest of sharks for food. Sustainably harvesting animals that have so few young so late in life is extremely difficult, and most times that it has been tried, the fishery has collapsed within a few decades. That doesn’t mean that it is impossible and it doesn’t mean that we should ban all shark fishing. However, for me to be satisfied, the world of commercial fishing is going to need to undergo some drastic changes.
The goal for finning
While I can accept sustainable fishing for some shark meat, I object to the shark fin soup fishery. In most parts of the world, this fishery is brutal, wasteful, and unsustainable. Sharks of any species and size have their fins cut off, and the rest of the animal is dumped overboard to bleed to death or drown- all to provide texture to a delicacy for the rich. The few countries that have shark finning policies have different strategies to manage it.
Some, like Canada, require that fishermen land the rest of the shark and not just the fins (not attached to each other), and they enforce this by weighing total fins and total shark carcasses. This is silly, because different shark species can have a drastically different fin-to-body weight ratio. Other countries require that fishermen land sharks with the fins still attached, which is better and is starting to become the standard. It still allows finning, however.
I would feel differently about shark finning if it provided a staple food item for the world’s poor instead of a delicacy for the rich. I would feel differently about shark finning if the shark’s meat was used, instead of just cartilage for texture. I would feel differently if fishermen targeted only certain species of a certain size instead of every shark they find. As it stands, though, my goal for the shark finning fishery is its complete abolition.
The goal for bycatch
The threat sharks face from bycatch is harder to regulate. In some cases, simple gear modifications can minimize the amount of sharks caught without greatly influencing the catch of target species. In other cases, simply placing gear in slightly different locations or depths can greatly reduce the number of sharks caught accidentally. Some of these changes have been made already, most have not been. Conservationists who fight for long-term large-scale goals should sometimes fight for easy fixes that will still make a lot of difference. My goal is for every single known and feasible bycatch reduction strategy to be implemented. This won’t eliminate bycatch, but it will reduce it significantly.
Some fishing gear is so destructive (to sharks and many other ocean animals) that simple fixes just won’t help. In these cases, my goal is for that gear to be banned entirely. This is not unprecedented- the U.N. banned large drift nets almost 20 years ago because of the huge amount of bycatch they caused.
The goal for marine protected areas
While I don’t think that we need a global ban on shark fishing modeled after Palau’s policy, some small-scale areas where shark fishing is banned would be very helpful. Research performed on a marine protected area in Belize has shown that many species of shark remain in a small area for much of their lives, showing that a small region where shark fishing is illegal can have an effect. However, some species, like the Great White shark, can swim thousands of miles in a year and wouldn’t stay in a small protected area very long. Although they won’t help all shark species, marine protected areas will protect many. My goal is a large worldwide network of marine protected areas that protect sharks and other marine animals.
My goal for fishermen
The global commercial fisheries industry is at a crossroads. There are too many fisherman chasing too few fish, and overfishing is rampant. However, contrary to the claims and insinuations of some conservationists, fishermen are not evil people trying to destroy the environment. They are hardworking people who are just trying to provide for their families, and they are correct when the point out that most policies that will protect marine life will harm them financially. However, if nothing is done, there will be no fish to catch and fishermen will be harmed financially anyway. My goal is for there to be fewer commercial fishing vessels and a much lower global catch, and I am open to suggestions on how to help the fishermen that this policy would negatively impact.
My goal is for an end to unsustainable shark fishing, a ban on the shark fin soup fishery, the implementation of bycatch reduction policies, a global network of marine protected areas, and some form of incentive or regulation to encourage fishermen to catch fewer fish overall. Some parts of this goal would be more effective for protecting sharks than others. Some are more achievable than others. I believe that all are worth fighting for.