H E Sawyer
Once upon a time I believed the moon was made of cheese, so much so that I told anyone who would listen. So too did many of my contemporaries. Yet the fact that we desperately wanted to believe the moon was made of cheese, the fact that we told anyone who would listen, didn't necessarily make it so.
Something remarkable has happened. Shark conservation has got it wrong.
That in itself is not remarkable. There's been a number of individuals, notably Eugene Lapointe, President of the IWMC World Conservation Trust, and former Secretary-General of CITES, who've been telling us that for years.
What's really remarkable is that someone within shark conservation has recognised it, and what is more, has had the courage to say it publicly. So before anyone decides to rewrite history, (having already rewritten science), let's put it on record. Patric Douglas, CEO of Shark Divers, take a bow.
His blog states, "As a shark conservationist I had assumed that these figures, (annual catch), often quoted by the major NGO's, were sacrosanct."
But in the light of Dr. Shelley Clarke's recent article, published by Sea Web, ("the only international non-profit organisation exclusively dedicated to strategically communicating about ocean issues"), Patric feels the need to draw a line under what he describes as shark conservation's "self developed narrative".
Dr. Clarke's trade based calculations are the current cornerstone of shark conservation. She writes; "As of 2000, the fins of 38 million sharks per year were being traded through the fin markets, but the number could range as low as 26 million or as high as 73 million."
Any shark conservation group worth a signature or donation should know this. Dr, Clarke continues;
"In 2011, with many conservation organisations escalating their campaigns and rhetoric against the shark fin trade, there are few news articles, web sites or blogs that don't mention the millions of sharks killed each year. But I almost never see any reference to the 38 million, which was after all, my best estimate.
Frequently I see "73 million" without any reference to this being my highest estimate, and almost as often I see "100 million," an estimate that was published in Time magazine in 1997 but for which I can find no scientific basis."
There's even more spin within the exaggeration.
"Even more troubling, some sources quote these figures as "the number of sharks killed for their fins", or "the number of sharks finned" (carcasses discarded at sea), or the "number of sharks finned alive" every year. The truth is that no one knows how many sharks are killed for their fins, how many have their carcasses dumped at sea, or how many sharks are alive when finned. We simply don't have that information, nor do we know whether these numbers have been sustained every year since 2000."
Obviously it's important data is presented accurately, because selective use devalues future research. And unless the goal is to prevent any shark from being killed, (and let's be pragmatic here), it's vital to know how many sharks can be taken without damaging their sustainability and the ecosystems they're integral to.
Whilst conservation might not care about the science that tries to support it, inflated figures and misrepresentation risks
undermining the overall message. As I wrote in my article, 'Dining Out With Sacred Cows' for Diver in June 2010, "Trumpeting 100 million shark kills, year in year out, serves no purpose other than to provide easy propaganda that's ultimately counter productive."
There are numerous shark conservation groups world-wide, many 'one-man-bands' simply running a web site in order to 'raise awareness', but they get their 'science', shark 'news' and impetus from the major players.
The advent of social media has not passed shark conservation by, indeed this is where you will find many of the desktop conservationists, as well as all the major players. These sites require a daily drip feed of shark 'stories'. Most are self generated. Environmental news services promote their ability to take a shark conservation 'story', feed it to a writer, who will in turn push the desired message into print, where it can be regurgitated back through the multiple groups to their subscribers.
This gives grass root support the impression that shark conservation is prominent in the media.
ENS, one such environmental wire service states;
"Enhancing your company brand with expert news stories creates the invaluable impression that you are an expert source of crucial information in your field."
It's a classic PR tactic. You'll have no doubt noticed that although it's an environmental news service, it's helping to promote your 'company brand'.
The forthcoming feature length documentary, 'The Fin Trail', (a sequel of sorts to 'Gordon Ramsay: Shark Bait'), cites the 100 million 'Magic Number', with 99% killed for their fins. The investigator, researcher, script writer and co-producer of 'The Fin Trail' is Richard Peirce, who is also the Chair of The Shark Trust. Yet confusingly The Shark Trust acknowledge Dr. Clarke's top end 73 million figure, not 100 million.
There appears to be a 'knowing' dialogue behind the scenes, where conservation is tipping the wink to science. Because it appears the inflated figures and hyperbole is for the benefit of the general public, because the big picture is to engage people.
But I'm the general public, and so are you. I'm very sorry for shark conservation that a single mother on a council estate and the captain of the golf club don't care about their pet cause. I understand why they don't. According to Project AWARE the general public's eyes "glaze over" when they raise awareness of over fishing.
But that's no justification to patronise those of us who do care. Lack of interest hasn't stopped 750.000 of us signing up for 'Hugh's Fish Fight' on the matter of discards, and making seafood providers and regulatory bodies take note.
We're in the ridiculous situation where millions of sharks are willingly 'sacrificed' by the same conservationists who claim to be protecting them, because they don't think they'll get sufficient attention otherwise.
Fortunately a new annual catch figure is on the horizon. If it's lower than Dr. Clarke's figure it might mean we've fished off the interest from the shark population, and are starting to eat into the capital. Or that conservation has made a difference.
If it's larger the current shark conservation frenzy will intensify. It will also suggest that for years 'Shark Con' have been crying wolf over sustainability, and their well meaning efforts have made no impression.
I'll stick my neck out. The new figure is going to be a whopper.