AN IMPORTANT DEBATE: The shark fin industry vs. shark fin bans

Posted on February 18, 2012
Written by: Shark Savers

A debate at Institute for South East Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore, February 2012.

In the on-going battle between the shark fin industry and the conservationists dedicated to ending the decimation of shark populations, discourse was on the menu in Singapore last Thursday.

Shark Savers was invited to participate in a seminar with the unfortunate title of: Shark’s Fin Soup Helps the Poor: Is the Fin Industry all that Bad?

 

That title represents the central argument of the primary speaker, Dr. Giam Choo Hoo, Singapore’s Representative to CITES and an outspoken spokesman for the shark fin trade. Following Dr. Giam’s presentation were shorter presentations and discussion by three additional speakers.

Also present at the event and speaking for the shark fin trade:
Robert W. G. Jenkins, president, Species Management Specialists, Canberra, Australia.

Speaking for shark conservation:
Professor Steve Oakley, Shark Savers team leader of our new Malaysia chapter
Louis Ng of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES).

 

The event was framed around Dr. Giam, whose presentation was first and was the longest. The heart of Dr. Giam’s arguments, below, are either based on a selective reading of the facts, or are devoid of facts at all. (The links are to Shark Savers Fact Sheets that include our relevant arguments countering those points.)

  • It should be noted that Dr Giam and Jenkins were instrumental in preventing the inclusion of additional shark species to CITES at the Doha Meeting 2010.
  • Dr. Giam also attempted to block CITES listing of great white, basking and whale sharks in 2006.
  • CITES is not a scientific body. Only government representatives have a vote to list a species as requiring protection from international trade, and a 2/3 majority is required. Additionally, trade-based economics are the main criteria, not species conservation.
  • Shark Savers’ maintains that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is science-based, is the best arbiter of which species are deserving of protection.

 

Mr. Jenkin’s presentation attempted to downplay the credibility of the shark conservation movement by criticizing certain statements, approaches, and images used to educate the public about shark finning. Mr. Jenkins then asserted that most sharks are finned after they are dead, not live-finned. 
Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: Shark Meat vs. Shark fins

However, there is no available definitive data to support his assertion. Regardless, conservationists agree that too many sharks are killed for their fins making viable shark populations more and more difficult to find.

 

In contrast, the two presentations by Shark Savers and ACRES were fact-based, avoided rhetoric, sensation, exaggeration, distortion, or emotional arguments. These presentations made the logical case that:

  • 17% of all shark species, and 30% of pelagic shark species are now threatened with extinction;
  • There is insufficient data on an additional 47% of shark species to determine their status — the ‘precautionary principle’ applies to these species;
  • 40% of the fins sold through auctions in Hong Kong (imported from over 80 countries) are comprised of only 14 species of sharks;
  • All 14 of these shark species are listed as Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction by the IUCN; 
    Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: Shark Declines-SFT Species
  • These species do not reproduce at a fast enough rate to overcome current levels of overfishing, and the result, in many cases, has been population collapse, with regional losses of highly targeted species as high as 99% in some cases;
  • Shark population collapse has been shown to have far-reaching negative impacts to the ocean habitats, ecosystem function, and fisheries.
  • Refuting Dr. Giam’s remarks about hurting poor, artisanal shark fishers:
  • The vast majority of sharks are not caught by poor fishers but by pelagic, commercial fishing boats;
  • The shark fin trade has, in fact, turned previously artisanal fishers that rarely targeted sharks and had a negligible impact on local shark populations into more aggressive fishermen specifically targeting sharks to supply the international fin trade;
  • Alternatively, sustainable fishing, of non-shark species, helps poor fishers by ensuring fish for the future;
  • The greatest success in helping poor fishing communities has been where shark eco-tourism replaces shark killing;
  • Allowing the killing to continue at current rates, the shark populations will continue to plummet and the shark fishermen won’t have anything to catch.
  • Overfishing of sharks is driven primarily by the fin industry. Yes, sharks are consumed for their meat. But the disparity in value of the fins vs. the meat is what is driving populations down and a large amount of sharks caught are not being used for meat.

We argued for stronger protections for sharks.

  • Campaigns to ban shark fin soup are only part of a broad strategy to protect shark populations worldwide.
  • Regulations against killing shark species that are threatened is critical
  • Sustainable management for other, associated marine species is also critical.

As a case-in-point, the current shark population in Singapore illustrates regional population collapse following intensive pressure; indeed, today there are very few sharks and no shark catching in Singapore.

 

Coming out of this important debate, some local newspapers cited a discussion by Professor Oakley, stating that he agreed with Dr. Giam and Mr. Jenkins that a shark fin ban is not a good idea. That does not reflect the sentiment of Prof. Oakley's complete statement as the quote was derived within the context as part of a broader, complex discussion as to whether a ban would completely solve the problem, and his further statement that it is up to the people of Singapore to determine their own regulations. Prof. Oakley argued in favor of sustainability and for rejecting the consumption of shark fin and shark meat.

Shark Savers has been directly engaged with most, if not all, of the shark fin bans accomplished to-date. We are involved in several more at this time. We will continue to do so because shark fin bans are a key component in a multifaceted strategy to stem global demand for sharks. We are clearly not opposed to shark fin bans. We work with the people of a given country to support getting stronger protections for sharks toward the end of sustainable practices. Our ideal is to work towards no consumption of shark fins or shark meat.

We also pursue other means to protect sharks. We work towards complete bans on shark fishing by working with local communities to establish shark sanctuaries. And our on-going education/outreach educates people all over the world not to eat shark fin soup, nor to consume other shark products.

Is every one of the above methods perfect? Will any one of these methods, alone, solve the problem of overfishing of sharks? Of course not. That’s why we need to pursue all of them while making incremental steps towards the goal.

Importantly, there do seem to be some significant points of agreement between the two sides of the debate, although it remains to be seen whether this agreement will result in progress towards protecting sharks.

For example, Dr. Giam and Mr. Jenkins agreed that shark fishing needs more regulations to work towards sustainability. Mr. Jenkins said, “There is little doubt that many shark fisheries are either fully- or over-exploited.  The problem will not be solved by imposing trade bans on the use of shark fins without also banning the consumption of shark meat in Europe, North America and elsewhere!”

Dr. Giam stated in his presentation, “Laws like those in California should not only ban shark fin, but other parts of the shark bodies.”

We would happily sign-on to all of those outcomes. However, we continue to believe that the place to start is where the cause is the greatest -- ending the shark fin trade would have the largest positive impact towards protecting over-exploited shark populations.

This debate was just one moment in a tough, on-going battle to improve protections for sharks. We hope that the broader discussion will help to change minds in favor of saving more sharks.

Below is the complete list of Shark Savers facts sheets referred to in this article debunking the misinformation that is commonly quoted by proponents of the shark fin trade.

Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: Shark Fishermen
Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: Shark Bycatch
Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: Shark Populations IUCN vs. CITES 
Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: IUCN Status of Shark Species 
Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: Shark Declines-SFT Species
Download Shark Savers Fact Sheet: Shark Meat vs. Shark fins

1Clarke, S. 2004. Understanding pressures on fishery resources through trade statistics: a pilot study of four products in the Chinese dried seafood market. Fish and Fisheries, 5(1): 53-74.

Lack, M. and Meere, F. 2009. Pacific Islands Regional Plan of Action for Sharks: Guidance for Pacific Island Countries and Territories on the Conservation and Management of Sharks. Forum Fisheries Agency, Secretariat of the Pacific Community and Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Enviornment Programme.

Clarke, S. C., McAllister, M.K., Milner-Gulland, E.J., Kirkwood, G.P., Michielsens, C.G.J., Agnew, D.J. Pikitch, E.K., Nakano, H., and Shivji, M.S. 2006. Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets. Ecology Letters, 9: 12.

Myers, R.A., Baum, J.K., Shepherd, T. D., Powers, S.P., and Peterson, C.H. 2007 Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from a Coastal Ocean. Science, 315: 1846-1850

Ferretti, F., Worm, B., Britten, G.L., Heithaus, M.R., and Lotze, H.K. 2010. Patterns and ecosystem consequences of shark declines in the ocean. Ecology Letters, 13: 1055-1071

Stevens, J.D, Bonfil, R., Dulvy, N.K. and Walker, P.A. 2000. The effects of fishing on sharks, rays and chimaeras (chondrichthyans), and the implications for marine ecosystems. ICES Journal of Marine Science 57: 474.494.

 

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