|The growing debate over the worldwide status of
sharks has become quite intriguing from the point of view of a life long
From my vantage and experience as former
Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and as head of IWMC- World
Conservation Trust today, I must say that the arguments put forth by both
sides seem plausible and persuasive. However, cooperation, not
confrontation, is the hallmark of any successful conservation effort for
any species, terrestrial or aquatic.
On the issues surrounding sharks, there
are certain areas of agreement. The first is that the alleged
practice of "finning" live sharks is both wasteful and
deplorable. No one defends such behavior. Consumers and
fisheries alike must take steps to prohibit the practice and punish the
The second, apparently, is that with the
exception of latent or overt bias by those who condemn any cultural
practice or tradition that differs from their own, there is nothing
intrinsically wrong with consuming shark fin soup. To the contrary,
anyone who has partaken of the dish easily understands the passions of its
Third, both sides, publicly at least,
subscribe to the principle that "sustainable use" is or should be
the end goal of any credible and successful conservation effort.
With so much, apparently in common, why an
organization lead by Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) founder, now
WildAid Executive Director, Peter Knights would attack statements made by
Dr. Giam Choo Hoo, a member of England's Royal College of Veterinary
Surgeons on the other?
The answer lies in the credibility of each
side's claims. A close look finds one side woefully lacking in any
semblance of credibility particularly if one attempts to follow or even
identify any strain of consistent logic in its arguments.
WildAid, via its website, claims that
economically depressed subsistence fishermen in India, Kenya and Brazil
"depend on shark meat as a low cost source of protein" and
condemn the quest for shark fins by the shark fin soup market as taking
food from their families' mouths. It strains the imagination to
believe that destitute shark fishermen in these nations would seek only
"cheap" meat and not sell valuable fins of sharks to supplement
their meager income. WildAid's illogical portrayal also ignores
India's role as a major supplier of fins used by the soup industry.
WildAid's discussion of sharks as
"incidental bycatch" of commercial fisheries seeking other
"more valuable species" is equally puzzling. WildAid claims
the demand for shark fin has lead to widespread "finning" where
"90-95% of the shark is wasted" in part because "its meat is
difficult to store". Given the worldwide commercial market for
shark species such as mako, thresher, spiny dogfish and others, what
species has meat so radically different that makes it so "difficult to
store" versus the flesh of commercially sought sharks. WildAid
never says. In fact, it never says what species are
"finned" and their meat, teeth, cartilage, hides, oil etc. wasted
by a fishing vessel from any part of the world.
The suggestion is that "finning"
live animals is widespread. No evidence to that effect is
offered. Economically, such waste is hard to conceive by any
nation. Isolated incidents are acknowledged. But, lacking
supporting evidence, to call it a pressure driving shark species to the
brink of extinction appears the grossest sort of hyperbole.
Examples of WildAid's misrepresentations
not only in words but in photos too abound on the WildAid website.
One example is a photograph of a dead hammerhead shark that appears to
contradict a number of points the group strives to make. The caption
describes the hammerhead as "caught by Indian fishermen" and adds
"although its meat has little value, its fins make an attractive
Perhaps, WildAid is relying on readers'
short attention span and shorter memory to recall that earlier the website
said these same Indian fishermen are supposed to object to the fin trade
and relish shark flesh. Contrary to WildAid's characterization of
hammerhead shark flesh, the United Nations Food & Agriculture
Organization (FAO) says these sharks are "taken in coastal fisheries
around the world" with their "meat utilized fresh, fresh-frozen,
dried, salted and smoked for human consumption." Hides are
processed for leather, oil for vitamins, and what remains is used for
fishmeal. Someone values their flesh.
Speaking of credibility, another WildAid
photo on their homepage purports to show sea turtles "caught in shrimp
nets," also in India. Take a close look. The Indian
fisherman who uses the nets shown in the picture has to be either a
multimillionaire or incredibly fat or both. The mesh size of the nets
is so large, that the shrimp they catch must weigh between ten and fifteen
WildAid's least credible statement is
"there are no international management plans whatsoever" for
shark. FAO, at the urging of CITES in 1994, began work on a global
shark fishery management plan. That work was completed in 1998. In
February of 1999, the Committee on Fisheries of the FAO adopted an
International plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks,
contrary to the trumpeted claim by EIA/WildAid that no management plan
exists. FAO hopes all member nations will implement their own
"shark plans" based on the FAO guidelines by the next meeting of
FAO's Committee on International Fisheries (COFI) in 2001.
Conservation of sharks or any species
depends upon cooperation. Cooperation is fostered by trust and trust
is built on the ability of all parties to speak and act credibly.
WildAid appears lacking in the latter. For that reason, WildAid's
campaign to "inform consumers" of the circumstances that bring
the fins to their soup, should leave those same consumers satisfied that
the world's shark population is doing just fine, no thanks to WildAid.