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In Search of Credibility & Cooperation in Shark Conservation
 

In Search of Credibility & Cooperation
in Shark Conservation

by Eugene Lapointe
IWMC Presiden
t

 
 
The growing debate over the worldwide status of sharks has become quite intriguing from the point of view of a life long professional conservationist. 

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 practitioners. 

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 many champions. 

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 target."

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 pounds each.

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.

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