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The Real Shark Con, Controlling Our Seas, And Other Stories

H E Sawyer

There was something fishy about shark conservation from the start; the re-branding of a charismatic man eater, the crisis they faced, and the self righteous finger pointing at the villains responsible for their impending demise.

The closer one looked at the hyperbolic claims, the murkier the waters became. Straight question? No answer. Just a calendar offer. Challenge claims unsubstantiated by any scientific evidence? Named and shamed as someone intent on discrediting shark conservation.

With hindsight, 'shark con's' flirtation with self-destruction was way beyond my scepticism and imagination. And way beyond the troops they rallied for the cause.

A Few Words About The Pew Charitable Trusts

Founded by the children of Joseph N. Pew, CEO of the Sun Oil Company, (Sunoco), the Pew Charitable Trusts have donated millions to numerous charitable organisations that share the Pew family's philosophy and beliefs in education, religion, medicine and social welfare. They also donate to environmental groups. Sunoco is considered an environmental leader in the oil and gas industry.

And Pew believe they can help to solve the nation's problems. That nation being the USA.

The Shark Trust in the UK are just one of 85 NGOs who receive funding from Pew, as part of the Shark Alliance, which Pew formed. When the various NGOs need to meet up, Pew pays for the flights. Understandably the benefactor expects the various environmental groups within the Shark Alliance to toe their party line, else lose their funding.

It's been alleged that Pew funded rival groups to compete with any dissenters, consequently when the dust settled from the infighting, those still standing were in Pew's corner. There's no evidence this happened, but the practice of manufacturing rival pseudo groups for a punch up is well known within PR. Such groups are known as 'AstroTurf'. Because the grass roots aren't real.

The important thing to remember here is that Pew are the biggest hitter in shark conservation, and they're an American charitable foundation created from an American oil corporation.

The obvious question is: why is an American oil company channelling dollars to save sharks?

Scuba divers are natural ambassadors for sharks. They actively want to see them in their natural habitat, consequently they're major advocates for shark conservation. So I asked them the question. The answer I received from the self confessed cynics was that it was a strategy to improve the oil company's image.

And there's nothing wrong with that.


Greenwashing was identified by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt in the 1980's, in response to the hotel industry promoting the re-use of towels to help save the planet, and to show hotels cared. Westervelt found that the reality was few hotels made efforts towards helping the environment, but the green sheen increased their profit. Less towels to wash less often saved them money. It wasn't whitewashing. It subtler than that.

Oil corporations who've reinvented themselves as energy corporations, are keen to push their environmental credentials. Possibly the best known example is BP, British Petroleum, who developed their 'Beyond Petroleum' tag line from their initials, suggesting their commitment to renewables. They changed their company logo to the eco-friendly yellow and green sunburst.

Pew were not just the benevolent green face of Sunoco. They got busy, founding SeaWeb, 'the only international, non-profit organisation dedicated to strategically communicating about ocean issues.' One of the first things SeaWeb did was commission a survey to discover which ocean issue would best engage the public.

The results told SeaWeb that 81% of Americans thought oil spills were a very serious problem. Overfishing on the other hand wasn't considered a very serious problem, and was bundled with 'loss of critical species' to even register as a meaningful indicator of trouble.

Yet when SeaWeb reviewed the poll in their November 1996 update, the only specific threat mentioned was overfishing. "71% agree that overfishing is threatening the health and stability of the marine environment." Oil spills didn't get a mention.

Negative attention was diverted from oil companies to the patsy of fisheries,

The important thing to remember here? Oil companies were to blame in the minds of the public. Until they were told the problem was overfishing.

Rebranding The Shark

The shark too was having a make over. No longer a 'mindless killer' it was now portrayed as a victim who had more to fear from us than we had to fear from it. I say 'it'. Sharks rescued from nets protecting beaches were christened and anthropomorphised. Any fatal attacks and the advocates of apology blamed us for wearing jewellery, feeding fish, overfishing, (naturally), global warming, dumping sheep carcasses overboard, any extraneous man-made circumstance going.

Human fatalities were divided between 'provoked' and 'unprovoked' attacks, so only the figures for unprovoked attacks were given to the mainstream media when sharks hit the headlines for the 'wrong' reasons, as far as conservationists were concerned.

This reduced human casualties at a stroke, and allowed 'shark con' to tell us we were more likely to be killed by the toaster in our kitchen than by a shark, ignoring the basic probability of risk, that more people are exposed to toasters than sharks. Other man killers in the animal kingdom, snakes, tigers, hippos, don't have the same 'get out of jail free' card.

Conservation gave sharks an enemy with a face. Better still, a foreign face. The Asian market for shark fin soup. "73 million sharks killed every year", no matter that 73 million was the top end scientific figure and the mean was 38 million. It was David v Goliath. Sharks were being killed for soup. Fact.

Strangely, shark was also used for other products that rarely got a mention; dog food, fertiliser, sandpaper, booster shots, anti-aging cream and moisturiser, body wash and body lotion, wallets, purses, bracelets and belts. Athletic shoes, dress shoes, burn treatment, vitamins, face powder, lipstick and lip gloss, wood polish, haemorrhoid cream, and meat.

These products are used globally everyday, but special occasion shark fin soup laid the blame squarely with Asia.

The shark was now charismatic, faced a crisis, and had a villain. A perfect package for fund raising.

The major 'shark con' NGO's were bolstered by over 100 other shark conservation groups, including some one-man bands who set up online and through social networking sites. All groups were provided with a daily drip feed of shark 'stories', written from within, or by writers directed by environmental wire services. One such service boasted;

"Enhancing your company brand with expert news stories creates the invaluable impression that you are an expert source of crucial information in your field."

The shark 'stories' were disseminated and regurgitated throughout the groups, keeping the message artificially prominent in the eyes of rank and file supporters.

The important thing to remember here is that the shark conservation package was developed and marketed, some of it by Pew. For misdirection. You most likely haven't tasted shark fin soup, but you and I have most likely used other products containing shark. Why is shark conservation not pointing a finger at us?

Sharks in Trouble?

Early in 2011, Pew produced a 32 page glossy report entitled 'Sharks in Trouble', an overview of the global status of sharks. It covered all the bases; commercial shark fishing, (primarily for fins naturally), with 73 million sharks killed every year, although the report couldn't resist adding, "Many scientists estimate that at least 100 million sharks are killed annually". None of these "many scientists" had a name. Naturally.

The report included the dramatic decline in some shark populations, bycatch, shark fin soup, the role of the shark in the ecosystem, and their live dollar value to eco-tourism.

Finally the solution to reversing the decline; establish shark sanctuaries, and apply even more regulation on shark fishing and trade.

The report, complete with emotive photography of finned sharks lifeless on the seabed, pushed the 'shark con' agenda with leaps of faith and cherry picked, slanted science.

Essentially it was propaganda. I wrote an 11 page dissection, which went to several shark scientists, CITES, (Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species), the embassies of the five countries criticised by the report, and Matt Rand, Pew's Director of Global Shark Conservation.

While there are three sides to 'Sharks in Trouble', Pew's version, my version, and the truth, what surprised me was the nature of Matt Rand's reply.

My response to Pew's report had been garnered from eighteen months of sporadic research, written without payment or sponsor. If Pew responded I expected a robust defence of their report. Yet the token page and a half delivered no such counter punch, seemingly no passion for the cause of shark conservation, merely PR.

If a particular species of shark is data deficient, it does not mean that species is on the brink of extinction. It just means it is data deficient. You need to collect data to make an informed judgement, not jump to conclusions.

Here's an illustration;

Imagine a young black man from a broken home. Earrings, cash and girls. He drives a flashy sports car in an aggressive manner, has been stopped by the police and is in regular trouble with the authorities.

I'm describing Lewis Hamilton MBE. A Formula One motor racing champion. Who were you thinking of?

The defence of protecting a species because it is data deficient is that this is a precautionary approach. It sounds sensible enough, but it's a bit like me not using a word because I don't know how to spell it and can't be bothered to look it up. This is 2011. Surely we've reached the point where if we don't know something we should try and find it out?

The precautionary approach merely scares people from sailing off the edge of the flat earth.

Most of the points I raised to Pew about their report were simply unaddressed and ignored.

And perhaps therein lied the 'truth'.

Pew's Director of Global Shark Conservation cared less about 'Sharks in Trouble' than I did. And I don't care about sharks at all. Are sharks simply Pew's poster child? Because apparently they'd been heavily into swordfish before they got into sharks.

The important thing to remember here is, as in 'The Shawshank Redemption', there's another story going on, behind the poster, out of sight.

Maintaining The Fiction: Chagos

In 2004 the journalist and broadcaster John Pilger made a very disturbing film entitled, 'Stealing A Nation'. It told the story of Chagos, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, which lies in the manufactured British Indian Ocean Territory, just down from the Maldives, to the right of the Seychelles.

In 1968, the British Government granted Mauritius independence on the proviso that it gave up any claim to the Chagos group of islands that it had administered up to that point, thereby allowing the UK to take over the islands and the indigenous population living there.

Then the British, with help from the US military, rounded up all the pets, put them in a van, ran a hose from the exhaust and gassed them. They then expelled the two thousand islanders, dumping the colony in a derelict housing estate in Mauritius without utilities or sanitation, and left them to rot.

The largest island in the group, Diego Garcia, was leased to the US for a military base, the biggest such facility outside the US. The lease was paid for by way of a discount on a polaris nuclear missile that the US supplied to the Royal Navy, so parliament and the US Congress were both kept in the dark.

The UK then fabricated a story that the expelled population were 'contract workers' and were a 'floating workforce', although the cemetery headstones supported the fact that the islanders had been on Chagos since the Eighteenth Century.

In November 2000, after fighting for thirty years for the right to return, the exiled Chagossians had their day in the High Court, who ruled in their favour, and adjudicated that their eviction and expulsion was illegal. The Blair Government ran to Buckingham Palace and got the Queen to rubber stamp a Royal Decree. This allowed them to bypass parliament, nullify the High Court ruling, and prevent the Chagossians from returning home.

Yet the Chagossians continued to fight on. Then in 2010, while still Foreign Secretary, David Miliband created the world's largest MPA (Marine Protection Area) around the Chagos archipelago.

Environmentalists were thrilled, none more so than Alistair Gammell, Pew's director of the Chagos Campaign.

"In 2010 the international Year of Biodiversity, the UK has secured a conservation legacy which is unrivalled in scale and significance, demonstrating to the world that it is a leader in conserving the world's marine resources for the benefit of future generations."

Yet one look at David Miliband is enough to tell anyone that here was a man who didn't give a hoot about the marine environment. And so it proved.

Not only did the Government not have the funds to supply a patrol boat for the Chagos MPA, (it was funded by a Swiss billionaire), leaked documents from the US state department showed the MPA was created in order to hammer home the last nail in the coffin regarding the islanders return. In the MPA, fishing would be banned and thus the islanders would be deprived of their livelihood.

In addition, Colin Roberts, the Foreign Office director of overseas territories, is quoted as assuring the Americans that the UK's "environmental lobby is far more powerful than the (islanders') advocates". Unsurprisingly, because Pew were leading the environmental campaign.

Leading environmental groups supported the creation of the MPA. They are listed on the Chagos Conservation Trust web site. They include the ZSL (Zoological Society London), the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the Marine Conservation Society, and, of course Pew.

There's also a US companion web site which is now starting to raise funds. Their long term aim is to rid the islands of the rat population.

The important thing here is that on neither site will you read anything about the treatment of the islanders, their court case, or the presence of a very large US military base on Diego Garcia.



The Shark Con

Over the eighteen months of researching shark conservation, Pew's involvement made no sense. The suggestion that this huge effort to save the shark was simply PR to camouflage an oil corporation in fig leaves didn't ring true. The tiger is widely considered the world's most endangered species. Save that and you're God. Why was the shark so important?

The truth is I'd allowed myself to become misdirected. I'd been bogged down by challenging 'shark cons' spurious claims and merely succeeded in embroiling myself in pointless altercations with grass root supporters. It was fighting in the playground.

It was only when Matt Rand's inadequate reply to my dissection of Pew's 'Sharks in Trouble' arrived, and I noticed his seeming indifference, that I realised I was neglecting the bigger picture.

I turned again to 'The Shark Con' a film by American Rusty Armstrong released in 2010. The tag line read 'It's only business'.

Rusty was about as interested in sharks as I was. Nonetheless he'd accepted an invitation from a couple of fanatical shark divers to go and make a film at some of the shark diving hot spots. He found the embedded conservation message at every turn. Then he met a retired shark fisherman who had a completely different tale to tell. Sharks weren't being overfished, yet shark fishermen were being put out of business by increased regulation, which slashed their quotas by 50%.

Bill Goldschmitt, (imagine Quint from 'Jaws', faded shirt, beer in hand), spoke with bitterness of how the about face had killed off the industry they'd been encouraged to exploit in the early 1980's by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Choked, he said,

"I couldn't make enough money to pay for my gas."

Then came an insight from Russell Hudson of Directed Shark Fisheries. He spoke about Pew, how they were the 'gorilla' within shark conservation, and how they had their people everywhere. And he told Rusty why Pew were so interested in sharks. He suggested that because the shark interacted in every fishery on the planet, it gave Pew leverage in every aspect of commercial fishing.

This felt like the closest thing to a plausible explanation. Fishing was a huge natural resource, and Pew's SeaWeb arm had painted overfishing as the bad guy as far as the health of our oceans was concerned. Pew were the good guys, funding conservation, and taking on the bad guys on our behalf.

If you want to know about sharks, ask a shark fisherman who's been doing the job for twenty years. His livelihood and his family depend on his knowledge of sharks. Without that they'd go hungry. Similarly when I wanted to know about shark science, I didn't ask shark conservation, but shark scientists. That's how I knew shark conservation were distorting the facts in the first place.

The important thing here is that if you look at the globe, pale blue is the biggest mass; the world's oceans cover seven tenths of the planet. And we've already colonised dry land.

The Pew Ocean Real Estate Portfolio:
The Real Shark Con

I continued to ask the question: why was the charitable foundation of an oil corporation funding shark conservation? Those within shark conservation who had until then at least been willing to have a dialogue clammed up. It was like an elephant was in the room.

Finally I was sent two links; one from Nils E Stolpe, who wrote about commercial fishing in the US, who detailed how Pew had funded SeaWeb and how in turn SeaWeb had changed negative public perception from oil companies to fisheries.

But it was when I read the second link from 'The Fisherman' internet forum, by a poster calling themselves 'mightyj', that the penny finally dropped. Only it was more like a bag of spanners diving headlong down the stairs from the top of a lighthouse.

Back in 2003 the Pew Charitable Trusts called for a National Ocean Policy for the US outer continental shelf. The policy they wrote became law and placed the Trust in majority control of the Joint Oceans Commission, the body that administers and effectively controls ocean policy in the US.

Top of the 'to do' list was zoning large areas of sea floor for the purpose of leasing them to corporations for energy production, wind farms, fish farming, and bio-prospecting.

The money from this rent goes to the science they favour, which in turn can be used to drive their agenda. It's seemingly a very clever way of rapidly privatising the ocean and effectively becoming the sea's landlord, everything generating complimentary momentum.

Shark conservation, as funded by Pew, appears to be greenwash buffering for an oil corporation who are looking to increase their real estate portfolio in the world's previously free oceans. It's a sea land grab, real estate that can be leased, regulated and exploited, if, when, and as they wish, for the benefit of their stock and stake holders, not you and I.

And if you look at Pew's stock holdings, they're not fisheries, they're other energy corporations. The figures involved in the value of the stock Pew hold are telephone numbers, including area codes.

Let's be honest, I need hydrocarbons almost as much as the average American. It's all very well to be a staunch advocate of public transport, or to wear another jumper indoors in the winter, but without juice in the tank or something simmering on the stove, where would we be?

So there's no point in hand wringing about the subtlety of an oil corporation that uses it's profit to 'greenwash' it's image through a charitable trust, nor that the trust subsequently 'guides' conservationists towards an agenda that suits and rewards itself for its philanthropy.

I know how much you pay for petrol and gas. I know how much profit these companies make, and how much political influence they wield.

Pew were instrumental in getting George W. Bush to declare the Marianas Trench a National Monument in 2009. This covers an area of approximately 95,216 square miles, and although it prohibits commercial fishing, it does give the NOAA, (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), "primary responsibility for managing fishery-related activities".

Naturally Pew have their people inside the NOAA, so the fox is presumably now guarding the hen house.

But I own the sea and so do you. In theory we all own it, even landlocked countries. There's a UN treaty which came into effect in 1994 that says so. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. International waters were just that, and they are there as "the common heritage of all mankind". It took a nine year conference to get that to happen, so I think it safe to say they'd have all the bases covered.

And yet the ocean is being divvied up behind our backs. The world's greatest natural public resource is falling into 'private' hands, with a marine protection area here, and a shark sanctuary there.

The Palau Shark Sanctuary, the world's first, covers 600,000 square kilometres, Palau's entire EEZ, (Exclusive Economic Zone), an area the size of France.

Google 'Palau EEZ' and the first hit is www.seaaroundus.org. You'll see the Pew Charitable Trust logo top right of the screen. And the Palau Shark Sanctuary is one of those 85 NGOs in the Shark Alliance under Pew's umbrella.

Apparently the US military has an option on a third of Palau's dry land for a military installation, and they also have the right to store nuclear weapons within the territory, and to operate nuclear propelled vessels within the EEZ.

No wonder activist and Palau's Shark Sanctuary founder Dermot Keane told me; 'Conservation is a dirty business too."

And what of Chagos, the world's largest MPA, the UK's "conservation legacy" unrivalled in "scale and significance". Is that under the controlling influence of an oil corporation's charitable trust?

The Pew supported Chagos Conservation Trust web site informs on the science that had been carried out on the islands to date. Pollutant levels in the water and marine life were "exceptionally low", the water "the cleanest water tested so far in the world" and that "hydrocarbons found are almost entirely of biological (natural) origin."

Which goes to prove that the Chagossians had done a fantastic job of maintaining a pristine environment, whilst left alone.

But the best bit was in the conservation recommendations, which suggested;

"perhaps a sustainably funded, small organisation (Perhaps a Public Foundation) should be established by the Government, with effective support from other organisations, to conserve the natural marine and terrestrial environment and biodiversity of BIOT, as well as the related science, research and education. Experience should be drawn from best practice in other comparable protected natural areas of the world."

I wonder if they've got anyone in mind?

They're going to need logistical support and someone to patrol the area of course, and it just so happens there's already a man with that particular plan. His name is Gregory Darling. He manages the North Sea Marine Cluster, (NSMC), who state their aims and objectives as "creating and securing business".

Gregory Darling is also Chairman of the Gardline Group who specialise in shipping, marine surveys, security, and applied satellite technology. He's produced a thinking aloud document for the Gardline Group on Marine Protected Areas entitled, 'Surveillance, Monitoring and Enforcement - A Role For The Private Sector?'

He proposed that the likely 'gatekeeper and policeman' will be an existing Government Agency but wanted to know what the fundamental objectives were, how the delivery of these was managed, and if the funding has been allocated?

Then there was a map of the Chagos MPA. The next page stated;

"Close to Gardline's experience is the ability of an oil company to develop an offshore resource without any maritime resources of their own. The key components are all (sic) hired in."

There followed a list of what might be needed, which they could provide.

The seismic survey
The environmental and sea bed investigations
The drilling rig along with supply boats and helicopters
The development drilling
The production platform and or subsea completions
The pipelines and infrastructure

I thought Pew said Chagos was a conservation legacy? Yet we appear to have someone who has already produced a shopping list for an oil company and is starting the engines of the helicopters and supply boats.

I emailed the Chagos Conservation Trust to ask them if there'd been a survey of the MPA seabed. Secretary Simon E. Hughes replied;

"I am pretty sure that no such surveys or anything like it has been carried out ever. Access is strictly controlled."

He sent me a link to the Foreign Office web site, relating to the restricted travel to Chagos. I've no idea why he sent that, because I didn't ask for it. Perhaps I should forward it to the Gardline Group?

His closing comment was, "May I enquire what your interest is?"

It was just to see what he said. And to wonder if Gregory Darling knew something we didn't while he was thinking aloud.

Needless to say within 48 hours I had a survey of the Chagos MPA seabed from the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton. So I'm pretty sure there has been a survey, and that Timothy J. Henstock and Timothy A. Minshull carried it out.

So the oceans are being carved up, and we either don't know, or don't care, that someone is taking advantage of our ignorance or naivety. Or we're trusting 'them' to do it, while keeping our best intentions in mind. Fingers crossed on that one, because my energy supplier has just told me the bill is going up 15% as of this year.

But it's thought that they want us, the public, the sea's rightful owners, to help them to do it. To sign petitions and dig into their pockets to donate to shark conservation, in order to achieve greater leverage when lobbying, whilst wrapped up in a greenwashed environmental veneer.

All of this appears to be done under the veiled assumption that it's all about 'saving the shark' from the Chinese.

And this agenda appears to be piggybacked by those conservationists and environmentalists who genuinely care. That, frankly, stinks.

It's estimated that 25% of the planet's oil and gas resources are under the sea bed. Someone is going to extract it sooner or later. The question is; who in shark conservation knew what the underlying agenda was?

The Shark Trust here in the UK received £23,000 during the financial year 2010 - 2011 from Pew / Shark Alliance for "associated activities", which included "delivery of mapping activities". The Shark Trust actively contributes to the UK MPA Centre, because it is being paid to do so by the Pew / Shark Alliance.

Indeed going back through The Shark Trust accounts, "mapping activities" have been carried out for Pew/Shark Alliance since 2008.

A UK charity is being paid by a Philadelphia based foundation, created from oil, to help in the design and creation of Marine Protected Areas in UK waters. The foundation has a history of controlling the ocean for the purposes of regulation and leasing. At this point you might wonder how much of our UK water is covered by MPAs, and how much isn't. But could be.

Currently just 4% of UK waters are designated as MPA. So there's plenty of percentage available to stake an interest in a claim.

And now is the time, because on 8th September 2011, Richard Black, BBC News Environment correspondent wrote about the proposal of over 100 Marine Conservation Zones. This includes waters more than 12 miles from the coast., and that's very interesting because the UN set the territorial sea, the aquatic boundary if you like, at 13.8 miles.

I can't help but wonder if some of these proposed MCZs are in international waters, and therefore 'ours' in the first place. I can't help but wonder if any MCZs, will derive an income, who will pay, and who will receive?

I can't help but wonder if this is like having your watch stolen at one end of Petticoat Lane, only to have it sold back to you at the other?

Conservationists are so passionate about saving sharks that the funding and resources Pew brought to the table were simply irresistible, consequently 'shark con' climbed into bed with the charitable foundation of a US oil company. Strange bedfellows indeed.

It's easier if you can lay the blame on someone else, which is why Asia's taste for shark fin soup no doubt sweetened the deal. Now it's easier to look in the mirror and convince yourself you've done the right thing for the greater good. Perhaps it was a case of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'?

You, me, shark conservation. They've got us over a barrel, willingly or otherwise, we're all bent over. Crude. I know.