Sunday, August 10, 2014

Famous in Hong Kong and Majuro

In December 2012, I (representing my employer) went to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting in Manila, Philippines to advocate for the banning of the practice wherein purse seine vessels intentionally set their nets around whale sharks, a species assessed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.  In December 2013, I (again representing my employer) went to the WCPFC meeting in Cairns, Australia to advocate for the protection of silky sharks, a species assessed as overfished with overfishing still occurring.  At both meetings, all of the members of the fisheries commission agreed to implement the protections for both species.  Hurray!

Why do I bring this up now?  Because a few weeks ago an American vessel called the Sea Bounty was caught in the Marshall Islands setting its nets around a whale shark and fishing for silky sharks.  These actions violate the rules of the WCPFC, but also the rules of the Marshall Islands Shark Sanctuary, which bans all commercial fishing of sharks in their Exclusive Economic Zone.  The Marshall Islands Journal quoted me in a story this week saying some very nice things about the enforcement taking place there.
"When the shark laws are enforced, it serves as a deterrent for future violations," said Angelo Villagomez, a shark expert with the Washington, DC-based Pew Foundation. "The Marshall Islands fines are particularly significant; these fines can be used to fund further enforcement efforts. It also shows the world that port enforcement works, and that shark sanctuaries work."

The vessel was reported both catching silky sharks and doing a tuna set on a whale shark, which is prohibited by RMI law. The huge size of whale sharks attracts tuna, making them a target for tuna boats.

"Whale sharks swimming on the surface act as a living fish aggregation device, or FAD," said Villagomez. "There will often be schools of tuna swimming below the big shark. Whale sharks are assessed as 'vulnerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Endangered Species."

Silky sharks have been singled out for protection because of heavy fishing. "Silky sharks are a major secondary catch in the western and central Pacific, but they have been fished so heavily the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) says they are overfished and that overfishing is still occurring," said Vilagomez.

Because of concern of overfishing, silky sharks were recently placed on a protected list by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, and fishing vessels are supposed to return them to the ocean alive if they are caught. "It is worrisome if this measure is not being followed by industry, but it is encouraging that enforcement is catching the violations," said Villagomez. "If industry doesn't implement the already agreed to protections, they can expect more stringent, global protections down the road."

Villagomez praised RMI for its vigilance in enforcing its shark sanctuary. "The Marshall Islands continues to be the model shark sanctuary in terms of its legal framework and enforcement," he said. "They are a global leader on the issue of shark conservation, and I hope that other countries continue to follow their lead."
I was also quoted in story in the South China Morning Post (which was then picked up by a food blog) about the decline in the demand for shark fin in China.  The story focused on a new WildAid report showing drastic declines due to their outreach campaign over the last several years.
However, Angelo Villagomez, a shark specialist with US-based conservation group Pew Charitable Trusts, put the decline in consumption down to Xi Jinping's anti corruption campaign, which has forced a decline in lavish banquets.

"It's not to do with conservation. It's related to a Chinese government anti-graft crackdown, which has cut back on dinners where shark fin soup was featured on the menu," Villagomez told Agence France-Presse in September last year, commenting on the impact of China's graft crackdown on shark fin consumption.
Man, I sound like a real dick contradicting their conservation claims.  I mean, I don't even work on shark conservation in China!  What do I know?  Thing is, my quote was taken from a story about the Marshall Islands written last year.  The WildAid report only came out this week.  The context of my quote was more like this:
However, he said the decline in shark fin demand (in China) over the past year was not directly linked to increasing shark protection by Pacific islands governments (emphasis mine). Instead, it was related to the Chinese leadership’s crackdown on graft and opposition to extravagance.

“It’s not to do with conservation. It’s related to a Chinese government anti-graft crackdown, which has cut back on dinners where shark fin soup was featured on the menu,” Villagomez said.
It is totally not cool to use a quote from last year about a completely different issue and apply it to a study that just came out.  That's sloppy reporting at best.

The truth is, there is no singular approach in shark conservation.  We can never say that this one thing or this one person resulted in a change.  Societal change takes the work of many.  Global change even more so.  We should not argue over whether the main driver of the ban was conservation or corruption, because it was probably both.  In the end, if the government ban on shark fin soup leads to fewer sharks being killed, that is a good thing.  There is plenty of thanks and credit to go around, and probably several reasons why it happened.

I, however, can claim that I had nothing to do with the reduction of the demand for shark fin soup in China.  My job is to restrict the supply of shark fins getting there in the first place.

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