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The Emperor's New Clothes

H E Sawyer

There are two sides to every story. This is the one shark conservation doesn't want you to see.

In January 2001, when I qualified as a diver, I supported shark conservation. I donated, signed petitions, bought the tee shirt, and scowled in unison with my dive guides at suspicious boats on the horizon. As a new member of the dive tribe, keen to fit in, it seemed the right thing to do, 'we' were natural ambassadors for sharks after all.

Admittedly there was guilt, because I'd been eating shark since childhood, but now that I'd received 'awareness', I gave that up too. Subsequently all sharks had to worry about were the Chinese; my instructor informed me they killed 100 million every year for shark fin soup. It was a big, round, and crucially, memorable, number.

My coveted PADI card duly acquired, I went off to dive and write about shipwrecks, leaving the sharks to the people who cared more about them than I did.

Ten years later, the exact same claim resurfaced; 100 million sharks, China to blame. Despite the petitions, legislation, fund raising, and even more tee shirts, the bottom line, and those responsible, remained. It sounded like a broken record. So what had shark conservation been doing for the past decade? Because clearly it hadn't been saving any sharks.

I swapped my mask and snorkel for an Inspector Google deerstalker, and dived in.

Apparently there was peer reviewed science to support the annual catch, by Dr. Shelley Clarke. Her conclusion was, that as of the year 2000, the fins of 38 million sharks were being traded, but the figure could be as low as 26 million, or as high as 73 million. And while the fin trade might not account for every shark killed, conservation were specifically pushing "the number of sharks killed for their fins".

But 73 million is well short of 100 million. The bizarre scenario appeared to be that conservation advocates were arbitrarily adding a theoretical 27 million carcasses, to achieve the 'Magic Number', a figure Dr. Clarke first found in 'Time' magazine in 1997.

Basic division establishes that 100 million equates to approximately 3 sharks killed every second, (since 1997), although I've subsequently seen an email from Dr. Samuel H Gruber, where he claims authorship of the 'Magic Number', maintains that it's correct, and that he came up with it in 1990.

As recently as March 2013, the BBC's environment correspondent, Matt McGrath, reported the current assessment, (from 2010), by Dr. Demian Chapman; "Shark kills number 100 million annually, research says".

The science actually assessed the annual catch from 63 to 273 million. That's approximately between 2 and 8 sharks killed every second. Yet it was the 'Magic Number' that made the headline, rather than the top end figure. At least the possibility of a 273 million annual catch, indicated there were well in excess of 273 million sharks available to fish.

McGrath reported that the major factor driving the trade was the ongoing demand for shark fin soup in Chinese communities.

To muddy the waters further still, Leah Elisabeth Biery, of the University of British Columbia, published her calculations, (September 2012), that put the annual catch between 15 to 23 million, with a mean of 19 million. Her work was supervised by Dr. Daniel Pauly, a heavyweight in the field of human impact on global fisheries. Matt McGrath didn't report Biery's figures, there again neither did anyone else.

So the only thing that can be said with any confidence is that millions of sharks have been fished for over a quarter of a century, and conservation likes to push the 'Magic Number', whether the best available science supports it or not.

Yet despite the recreational, legal and illegal catch, the finning, sharks caught accidentally as bycatch, culls in response to human fatalities, whether you believe the rate is one shark per second, three per second, eight per second, or one every other second, the fact remains; not one single species, not even one of the handful classified as 'endangered', has been declared extinct.

The last species of shark declared extinct, according to the Pacific Shark Research Center, lived 1.5 million years ago. To put that into a contextual timeline, modern man emerged some 200,000 years ago.

Still advocates imply that shark species may die out in the next fifty years. It's possible. Many species die out, and many new ones are discovered, including the new shark species that have been recorded this century. Guess how many new shark species have been found since the year 2000, and write it down. Indulge me. Answers to follow.

Encouraging the prospect of imminent extinction, that we may lose a species on 'our watch', is done by conservation to stimulate concern, so we in turn donate, sign and spread the news. 'Raising awareness' seems to be about perpetually crying wolf to garner support.

The 'Magic Number' is essentially a headline grabbing device that, linked to fins, directs conservation's core supporters to blame Chinese consumers, rather than the multiple nations who fish and trade sharks. It's a PR exercise, presumably because shark conservation believes it's support wants to save and blame, but as illustrated, it hasn't made a jot of difference to the total catch, whatever that may actually be. The status quo remains for another year, and the advocates keep their jobs.

When they retire, the next generation will take over with exactly the same mantra. Yet everything suggests that actually trying to 'conserve' sharks is impossible, consequently what's the point of 'raising awareness' unless you're earning money out of it? Perhaps sharks can take care of themselves, just as they've done for the past 1.5 million years.


Finning is an emotive issue, partly because there's no way to gauge how widespread it is. But the consumer is definitely Chinese. Or Taiwanese. Definitely Asian. They serve shark fin soup; the clue is in the title. So if you wish to apportion blame squarely on one ethnicity, then the practice and the end product is tailor made.

However as Dr. Clarke noted, if you're interested in the overall status of shark populations, then it's immaterial how the shark meets its end.

So the shark that's finned is as dead as the one that's legally caught, commercially or recreationally, just like the one celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay caught on a fishing trip in the US, dragging it through the water until it drowned, before having it stuffed and shipped home. He made no mention of this when making his 'Shark Bait' documentary, which culminated with him haranguing Chinese restauranteurs.

Ramsay subsequently became a patron of the Shark Trust. People make mistakes of course;. he actually caught two.

There's a global shopping basket of products that are derived from shark, although they don't have a convenient 'shark' prefix. They aren't exclusively for Chinese consumers, and include everything from inoculations and cosmetics, to pet food and running shoes.

I wear trainers, and I've absolutely no idea if there's anything in their manufacturing process that requires a dead shark. And as the IUCN, (International Union for Conservation of Nature), states, the majority of sharks, 57.9%, are caught as bycatch, taken unintentionally in pursuit of other fish, as opposed to 31.7% of sharks, landed through direct commercial fishing.

This statistic makes no difference to conservation, who've intentionally stigmatised the Chinese as the distinct and objectionable cause, because one assumes they can raise more funds if their core 'white' supporters have a foreign face to point at. So is organised shark conservation racist? I have absolutely no idea. But those directing the campaign clearly believe their supporters are receptive to the playing of this unsavoury card. Worryingly, they're right.

Following a National Geographic article, concerning the discovery of a neurotoxin in the fins of seven shark species - "species often targeted for the unsustainable shark fin trade", Shark Alliance member, 'Shark Savers', linked the story to their Facebook page. The response?

"Amazing. Now they should make it public and deny medical treatment to any who suffer illness caused from eating the soup" (Katherine Pretorius)

"Good serves the kunts (sic) that eat them right. Wot (sic) goes around comes around." (David Mcmanus)

"Hope it's killing 'em quickly." (Andrew Baddley)

"Killing you softly with this fin ... killing you softly" (Carsten Höller)

The last comment is a play on Roberta Flack's 1973 hit, "Killing Me Softly with His Song". The comments were posted in February 2013, and are still there, as of November 2014.

The Shark Savers feed is moderated during office hours, so presumably someone is employed to delete 'objectionable' comments, such as my request for them to publish accounts, so supporters could 'follow the money', to see where it originates from. By presenting contentious stories to supporters, they're trawling for a response, be it a 'like', or something stronger, and by allowing such prejudicial comments to remain, surely they're tacitly endorsing the views expressed?

In an exchange on another forum, regarding a dead great white, finned on a Mozambican beach, Drikie Strydom left no doubt as to her feelings;

"I speak my mind, and call a spade a spade and I do not care if I offend anybody. But dammit we need a Hitler to tackle the Chinese.... and Chinatowns are emerging like mushrooms. When oh when are we going to realise they are bad for the country, nature and existence."

It's a cause for concern that shark conservation, by implicating the Chinese, have developed such views. While the internet may attract extremists, and shark conservation may offer them a platform, there are those within conservation who express strong views of their own;

"In early June I made the visit to China I referred to in my last column. I thought I was heading for the 'Kingdom of the damned' (sic) and having a real feeling of entering enemy territory. My lifelong passion has been wildlife in general and sharks in particular, and my perception was that most of the ills faced by wildlife on planet Earth have their origins in China."

That comes from the UK's go-to shark spokesman, and Shark Trust chairman, Richard Peirce.

So regarding finning, the individual could examine their own motivation. And that of the advocacy that fuels it. Either accept the fact that sharks are a global commodity, or continue to point the finger.


Another measure to gauge the health of sharks is the number of people they kill.

According to George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File, every decade since 1900 has seen an increase in fatalities from shark attacks. This, the ISAF suggest, is offset by the increase in the global population; more of us in the



water than a decade ago. By the same token there's 100 million fewer sharks than a year ago, let alone ten, and although there's only a handful of species able to kill us, it follows that the annual catch would include some of the slow to reproduce 'man-eaters'.

So while there may be more human 'prey', there's also fewer predators to account for the rise in fatalities. And the additional population can't all be conveniently rushing into shark infested waters to help support the theory. You're not reading this knee deep off a beach with a history of shark attacks, are you?

So how are the human fatalities realistically increasing unless the man-eaters are also healthy in number?

In 2011, in the wake of 12 recorded 'unprovoked' human fatalities, the ISAF suggested tourism was to blame. More of us were travelling to more remote destinations, increasing the likelihood of become victims of a shark attack. But there wasn't a single case in Florida that year, and the ISAF is based there because it's a recognised attack hot spot. The Florida blip was put down to the recession, so fewer tourists visited Florida, although perversely tourists were supposedly what accounted for the rise elsewhere.

So why were tourists shunning Florida's beaches? Two words; Deepwater Horizon. This was the largest oil spill in history, which started on 20th April 2010, and by July 2011 had contaminated nearly 500 miles of coastline. BP, (British Petroleum), forked out $25 million specifically so Florida could promote the beaches that were oil free.

The US Travel Association estimated an economic impact to tourism over a three year period to be in excess of $23 billion. Deepwater Horizon was the cause, tourists staying away was the effect, hence fewer people in the water, so no Florida fatalities. Yet George Burgess didn't say a word about the oil spill, consequently neither did National Geographic, or any media outlet that ran the ISAF 'Tourism Responsible for Shark Attack Increase' story.

The reason the oil spill wasn't mentioned; oil funds and directs shark conservation through charitable foundations.

The big hitter is Pew, founded from the profits of the Sunoco Oil Corporation. Pew have estimated assets in excess of $5 billion, including stock in other oil and energy corporations. They founded the Shark Alliance, a coalition of NGOs in 2006, including Conservation International, Shark Savers, and the Shark Trust.

Question is; why is the charitable foundation of a US oil corporation ploughing a fortune into shark conservation, when they appear to derive no financial benefit from sharks? Pew don't invest in any shark derived products, or have any stake in the eco-tourism sharks support.

The shark groups Pew fund are active in supporting the creation of 'shark sanctuaries', such as Palau, or Marine Protected Areas, (MPAs), such as Chagos. The idea of cordoning off vast tracts of ocean habitat for its 'protection' sounds seductive. Who wouldn't be in favour? The ocean is our planet's greatest natural resource, given to "all of humanity" by the United Nations, under the Law of the Sea, although that doesn't suggest that the charitable foundation of an American oil corporation should be stewarding it on our behalf.

That it's estimated some 25% of 'our' untapped oil and gas reserves lie in the ocean, is surely pure coincidence. But sooner or later, needs must. Perhaps that's how fracking started?


As the Australian documentary, 'Drawing The Line' illustrated, there's no actual barrier protecting any 'sanctuary' or MPA. It's just a line on a map. It cannot stop oil slicks, nor plastic detritus drifting in, nor polluted sediment running through from the land. It cannot prevent invasive species entering, or 'endangered' pelagic species from leaving. And it cannot prevent acidification.

What it actually does is to ring fence ocean, and place it under the influence of the foundation that supported its inception. In the US, the Joint Oceans Commission administers and oversees ocean policy. It's priority in 2010 was to zone large areas of the ocean floor for leasing to corporations, for energy production and bio-prospecting.

The rent from the leases goes into a fund to produce the science that in turn supports the establishment of additional reserves. This was outlined in a letter to President Obama in October 2010, which states the Ocean Investment Fund; "should be capitalised by a significant portion of rents derived from the use of publicly-owned ocean resources by the private sector in federal waters.

It's been reported that Pew have influence within the Joint Ocean Commission. If so, then not only could they benefit from the rent that funds the science, that supports their aim for more ocean 'protection', but theoretically they could benefit from the rise in stock, if tenders were awarded to those companies in which they hold stock.

So remember, if you're signing a petition, starting your own Facebook shark page, or running a marathon in costume to 'raise awareness', you're not working for extraction, or their shareholders; you're volunteering. Unknowingly. Conservation will thank you, extraction and their shareholders probably won't, but they're the ultimate beneficiaries of your efforts. And it's immaterial to them if there are sharks in 'their' ocean or not.

Naturally MPAs also prohibit fishing, so boats either go to the wall, or move elsewhere, that's already being fished, thus 'overfishing' becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or your seafood is imported from less well-managed fisheries. On paper MPAs look great. In reality that's all they are; lines on paper. Considering the aforementioned factors they're as useful as a chocolate teapot. Unless acquiring influence over large swathes of ocean and eradicating fishermen is your objective. They're perfect for that.

This 'eviction' process follows the 'fortress conservation' model that's been adopted for over a century, where 'western' conservation ideals have been implemented to remove indigenous people from their lands, to 'save' the biodiversity they themselves nurtured there. And if fisher folk aren't indigenous to the sea, passing their skills down through the generations, then who is?

You can read more about the ugliness and extraction behind 'fortress conservation' in Mark Dowie's, 'Conservation Refugees'.

Remember Conservation International, one of the Shark Alliance members? Dowie reports they need $100 million every year to simply exist. How on earth are you going to save sharks when you need to raise $100 million, just to keep the lights on? Clearly they're not really trying to save sharks.

Fortunately you don't need to 'save' sharks, or 'raise awareness' of their perceived plight. Because new species are continuously being discovered. How many species do you think have been found since the year 2000? I asked Dr. David Ebert of the Pacific Shark Research Center, after the discoveries of two new species within the space of a couple of months.

He told me there'd been about 200 new species discovered in that time. I limply suggested there must've been a mistake, "Because conservation says...."

Such is the power of propaganda, because it's the advocacy we want to believe, as opposed to what the advocate actually knows, that shapes our opinions. Dr. Ebert hadn't made a mistake. It's his job. What was I expecting? That he'd 'un-discover' some species, because I thought the answer would be half a dozen?

So while conservation states that sharks are being killed at 3 per second, what they're not telling us is that simultaneously new species are being discovered at a rate of better than one per month. You would expect that news to be shouted from the rooftops, but perhaps it would render shark conservation redundant. Pew wouldn't want that. 'Shark con' is a useful tool they're happy to subsidise and wield to have control over natural resources. They formed the Shark Alliance after all.


What 'Jaws' did for sharks, J.R. Ewing did for oil. The ultimate pantomime villain; covetous, manipulative, amoral, machiavellian, always threatening to return panda-eyed Sue Ellen to the sanatorium, "on account of yer drinkin' darlin', an' you'll never see John Ross again."

You have to admire Pew's nerve. They don't check their rudimentary long division before public presentation, have substituted 'endangered' into the lexicon at the expense of 'rare', and have adopted a 'precautionary principle' to prevent the reoccurrence of something that last happened 1.5 million years ago. And to describe a species as 'endangered' when it is actually 'data deficient' is risible. If we are having an oceanic steward foisted upon us, can we not at least have one who is competent?

You wonder if Pew's other activities, such as monitoring the global Muslim birth rate, polling on gun rights versus gun control, and asking their fellow Americans if they think the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is likely any time soon, are also 'precautionary'. Or whether such concerns reflect their ideology?

Sharks have a disproportionately high media profile, and if they're your pet cause, you might not want to think about where the money is coming from, nor that there might be strings attached. You're 'promoting sharks' after all, and the wider public doesn't really care the way you do, as reflected by the small percentage they donate. The public might raise an eyebrow if they knew the charitable foundation of a US oil corporation was using sharks to acquire vast expanses of our ocean. Pew have been involved in 'protecting' an ocean area greater than the land mass of China, seemingly without a mandate to do so. And we, 'all of humanity', are the ocean's seven billion stake holders.

When were we going to be brought into the loop? During 'Shark Week'? There's no debate, political or otherwise. The 'conservation' message has to be nurtured and protected, because it's extremely fragile. That's Matt McGrath's job. He promotes Pew's message, and is one of 1500 environmental journalists who belong to the Society of Environmental Journalists, an American non-profit, funded, unsurprisingly, by Pew.

McGrath may be positioning himself to follow in the footsteps of other conservation journalists. Frank Pope was The Times 'Ocean Corespondent', but then joined 'Save the Elephants' in Kenya. Charles Clover fronted the 'over fishing' documentary, 'End of the Line', then joined the Blue Marine Foundation. Journalists are being laid off in droves from print media, they have to earn a crust somehow

What's this got to do with sharks? Very little I'm afraid. It's the same for the tiger to the orang-utan. They're merely poster children for something far more important. Conservation, on land and sea, is effectively about surreptitiously acquiring control of natural resources for their corporate partners. Conservation is well paid for green washing the unpalatable truth. You don't get $100 million a year by rattling a tin under the public's nose.

The idea of battling for natural resources is nothing new. Between 1879 and 1883, Chile, Bolivia and Peru engaged in The War of the Pacific, essentially over guano, bird droppings for use as fertiliser on arid land. Organised corporate conservation is the covert 'grab'. It is what happens before needs must and we have to get the guns out. At the moment it's bulldozers, for the farmers on the other side of the world who don't want to sell up and relocate on conservation's terms.

Think it has nothing to do with you in your urban jungle? High street retailer Marks & Spencer has teamed up with the WWF and the Marine Conservation Society for their 'Forever Fish' initiative. M&S wanted to reduce their plastic bag outlay, and introduced a shilling charge per bag, The money went to their partners. To be spent partly on marine conservation areas, one in Tanzania. What the retailer will get in return for their association with the WWF in the wake of Wilfried Huismann's revelatory book, 'Panda Leaks - The Dark Side of the WWF', is uncertain, but clearly the WWF are not happy bunnies when they're caught in the headlights.

By an amazing 'coincidence', top end retailer 'Selfridges' has invested in 'Project Ocean', where they have established a marine protection area in the Philippines. It's not a coincidence, is it? Of all the charities they could have supported, the retailers focused on protecting precious fish stocks.

For shark supporters who've found the stomach to read this far, I understand. I donated, signed, and bought the tee shirts too.

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?


H E Sawyer receives no funding for his independent research, which has been carried out part time since 2010, and is published on www.hesawyer.com. He is not affiliated to any environmental NGO, nor fishing body, commercial or recreational, domestic or foreign. He is not affiliated to any Chinese or Asian organisation, or to any commercial shark interest. He has sold 2 articles on shark conservation, of which 25% (US$150) was donated to an independent film about sharks. He is a member of the National Union of Journalists, and lives in London.