Monday, January 26, 2015

Early Shark Conservation Has Been An Astounding Success

The first round of shark conservation is over. And it has been wildly successful.

Stop almost any American on the street and ask them about shark conservation and they will tell you about how sharks have their fins cut off alive and that their bodies are dumped at sea. This is called shark finning. Think about that. You are reading this blog and there’s a high likelihood that you probably know me and that I work on sharks, but did you already know this fact? I bet you did. I venture that nearly everyone in America already knows about shark finning. And they all know that it is bad.

So why do I still have a job if everyone in America already knows about my issue? Because shark conservation has moved beyond finning.

Shark finning public education has been one of the unheralded successes of environmental conservation outreach. There is more agreement in our country on shark finning than there is on fracking, the keystone pipeline, or climate change. And there is more awareness of sharks than there are of vaquitas or sage grouse. In fact, I bet you just had to Google vaquita.

Shark finning policy has been implemented in nearly every ocean and country around the world. President Clinton signed the United States shark finning ban in 2000. President Obama closed some loopholes in that ban in 2011. Last year New Zealand became the last non-Asian developed country to ban finning. I could run through the history of finning bans, but that’s not the point of this blog. There are currently no campaigns or efforts to ban finning anywhere in the world. This is because it is already banned.* Mission accomplished.

So why is it worth bringing up finning? I read somewhere that it takes about 10 years for scientific policy to catch up with scientific advice. The old scientific advice was to ban finning. After a successful conservation outreach campaign, nearly the entire world now knows that finning is bad and as a result it is nearly universally banned.

The scientific advice has now moved beyond finning. The paradigm shift on sharks likely started around 2006 with the publication of Shelley Clarke’s study estimating that up to 73 milllions sharks are killed each year (recently updated to 100 million sharks per year by Boris Worm et al). The new scientific advice is that many species of sharks (and rays!) are threatened with extinction and that they need protections. Sharks are worth more alive! Healthy reefs need sharks!

The advice of the conservation organization that employs me is to set catch limits for all commercially exploited shark species and to prohibit the landing of all shark species threatened with extinction. We also work with countries that have made the decision to end the fishing of all sharks in their waters. These shark sanctuaries are my particular focus. These are policies that will help restore shark populations to their previous abundance.

Yet finning still comes up all the time. There are constant calls to ‘end finning’ or ‘ban finning’ on Facebook and Twitter. Often times these calls to end finning are confused with calls to close the shark fin trade or end shark fishing, which are very different from finning. Shark finning determines how a shark is killed, not how many sharks are killed. Shark finning is an important, but lesser conservation policy. Shark fin trade bans and shark sanctuaries are heavy lifts.

It’s important for conservationists to use the right words when they are advocating. If we advocate for a shark sanctuary, but end up closing loopholes in the existing shark finning ban, there is less of a conservation benefit for sharks. The difference between finning, fishing, and shark fin trade bans are as different as going to the dentist and asking for a cleaning or a root canal. They both involve the health of your teeth, but they are very different things.

The next round of shark conservation will focus on setting catch limits, prohibitions, and creating shark sanctuaries, but we should also look back on the past successes of banning finning to drive us forward. The finning victories were hard fought and should be celebrated. Those policies were the stepping stones that have resulted in shark sanctuaries and threatened species listings on the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. But as a conservation community we need to be careful we are not confusing the public and policy makers by using the wrong words.

*There are still countries that fin sharks and actively oppose efforts to close loopholes in existing shark finning agreements. However, I am not aware that there are any domestic campaigns seeking to ban finning in Japan, China, or Korea.

I think about sharks and I write about sharks and I talk about sharks every single day. My expertise leans towards policies supporting full protections for sharks and I’ve spent the last five years advocating for shark sanctuaries around the globe, but I’ve also worked on trade restrictions, endangered species prohibitions, shark finning, and dreamed of catch limits.

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