Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Numbers: The Chickens have come home to roost - again!

Dead Sharks in Kesennuma. No, this NOT about Shark Finning, and no, they have NOT been killed for their fins alone or the like!

Oops indeed!
From my Weekend Rant.
The numbers?
The numbers are just that, numbers.
If one does not put them into context by comparing them to what we know about individual species in specific locations, they say nothing about sustainability which is the only thing that counts.
Yes we all know without having to resort to peer reviewed science that many local, and possibly even some global populations of some Sharks have been severely depleted, and that their disappearance is of concern – but for the time being, that’s basically all we can assert.

So far, there has been one single paper trying to shed a light on the actual numbers being caught, and this only based on data from the Shark fin trade. Read it!
The paper is based on a series of (probably plausible) assumptions that are heaped upon more assumptions, and consequently, the results are merely expressed in orders of magnitude. Specifically, the authors come to the conclusion that the fins traded annually came from between 26 and 73 million Sharks, with a median number of 38 million.
Does that really allow us to honestly state that up to 73 million Sharks are being killed each year, as everybody and his dog has started to assert?
Kudos to Seafood Watch for doing it right: It's estimated that tens of millions of sharks are killed around the world each year for their fins is much better - but then again, have they been killed for their fins?

As I said, the above numbers are only about the global Shark fin trade alone.
They do not cover many other Shark fatalities due to bycatch or targeted food fisheries where the fins are not being introduced into the fin trade. Also, that was then and the trade has very likely increased since. It is thus entirely plausible to assume that the “real” number is higher, and it is perfectly OK to say so.
It is however totally unacceptable to make up numbers on the fly, be it as many as 100 million, let alone over 200,000 million (!!!) which is just plain ludicrous and quite frankly, a total disgrace! Yes, I'm being frank! :)
The good news is that I know that somebody is working on a peer reviewed paper about the global number of Shark being killed – but once again, unless put into context, those numbers will mean absolutely nothing!

And what about the Rate of Depletion?
Is it really true that 90% (or 99, or 70 – whatever!) of global Shark stocks have already been wiped out? Compared to which original baseline count, done when, where and by whom?
Where are the data?

And is it really true that Some marine biologist have suggested as soon as 2020 these magnificent creatures may be extinct – and if so, who is claiming such utter baloney?
Those endangered species of Sharks will become commercially extinct long, long before they will become biologically extinct! But there's a caveat: it is however probable that some local populations may have shrunk to the extent that they may have accumulated extinction debt and that they may be too small to be able to withstand the pressure of a large environmental shock, like the current anthropogenic Climate Change – re-read this post!
...
Also, not every fin that is being sold has been finned!
Statements like over one hundred million sharks are caught and finned alive are thus doubly misleading!
...
If we want to be credible Shark advocates, we got to do our homework and first of all, be informed about the animals we love!
Science is always in flux and today’s insights may quickly become tomorrow’s fallacies, meaning that we must keep abreast of the latest research results and not base our knowledge on old publications and approximate hearsay.
Most importantly, we the amateur naturalists should never make up things on the fly, nor should we idly re-interpret what is considered to be the accepted consensus.

This does not mean that we should not challenge the current status quo, as that is precisely the process by which knowledge is being advanced!
BUT: the only accepted technique for doing so is the Scientific Method and as always, let me warn against the siren calls and intellectual shortcuts of the self promoters, quacks and charlatans - see on top!

All researchers I’ve ever met have always been eager to engage in informed discussions and to entertain different hypotheses, if adequately supported by according observations.
Those researchers are neither omniscient nor omnipresent and often, observations by common mortals like us have greatly contributed to the advancement of scientific insights - so even if you have no academic background, don’t be shy and speak up!
But do your home work first!

Or, as I said before .

Can we maybe just be a little more humble and less righteous, the more since Conservation is so complicated?
Maybe progress towards more facts and less truthiness (read this!)?
Can we maybe just open our eyes and wonder at the magnificence of what IS instead of trying to make things up?

We are the amateurs.
Can we please listen to what the professionals are telling us – the principal message being that extreme positions (on both sides!) are inhibiting Conservation and appropriate Management measures?
Recent example? Right here – like it or not, the man has a point!

If we want to educate others – let’s educate ourselves first!

That was in March.
Now, the lead author of the numbers paper (yes it is open source and available online - read it!) Shelly Clarke, has reached out with a wail of despair about the way Shark advocates are abusing the numbers she has estimated. It's the Shark Con all over again - and talk about a pathetically flat learning curve!

And I cite.

Exaggeration and hyperbole run the risk of undermining conservation campaigns.
Presenting a high but scientifically unsubstantiated number like 100 million can discredit otherwise valuable advocacy for better resource management and monitoring.

Pretty bloody embarrassing huh.
Pretty bloody dangerous too, as now the other side can rightfully claim that the lead author of the only paper dealing with the issue is asserting that Shark conservationists operate with fake data. So as a reminder, here's the actual citation from the paper, hidden somewhere in the general scientific gibberish at the bottom of page 119.
Estimates of the total number of sharks traded annually worldwide, based on all fin positions combined, ranged from 26 to 73 million year-1 (95% PI), with an overall median of 38 million year -1.

Not very helpful is it.
Couldn't she have said it like in her post, i.e. 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? Could she not have put that estimate into the Abstract at the top?
But, it is what it is - and anyway, those numbers mean nothing unless put into context!

Long story short?
We gotta stop exaggerating and making things up - is that so difficult to understand?

Which brings me straight over to the Oxygen.
Claiming (one of dozens, talk about a bloody memetic viral infestation!) that if the Sharks get wiped out we will all suffocate is just total unadulterated rubbish! Period!
And if that were not stupid enough, I already get a whiff of the attempt of linking Sharks and Global Warming! WTF?

How long til that, too, will bite us in the ass?
It is, as always, up to us!

7 comments:

Shark Diver said...

Guilty as charged. I am one of those who asserted the numbers as recently as last month in an interview with CNN, but in defense first saw those numbers with the big NGO's and thought they had done their homework.

The whole oxygen thing is just impassioned Shark Messiah clap trap who added that Paul Watsonian flourish because they believe the ends justifies pretty much any B.S storyline they choose to invent.

Hey, if it saves sharks right?

Now the cats outta the bag do you think anyone will take heed or has this train left the station?

And what of efforts in California and elsewhere to get finning banned using this bunk science?

I am pretty shocked that the bedrock in which a movement was founded could be so paper thin with so many people, including yours truly, who considers himself a bit savvier than your average conservationist being duped.

These are fundamental numbers.

I am beginning to think while there's a problem it's still mostly regional in scope. But then without any hard science to back that up I am just floating down the river of discontent like everyone else.

Anonymous said...

Careful there.

While you point out the 100 and 200 million examples, the author is not accusing anyone of using fake data. In fact, 100 million is still within an order of magnitude of 26-73.

The author does not like that one of three numbers in her results has been cherry-picked into a conservation message -- a sound bite.

To improve the situation her first recommendation is to cite original authors so that readers can look up original studies. That's not a bad idea.

Clarke rarely is cited as the source of the 26-73 million number. It is almost always credited to an NGO; often the one I work for.

As you correctly point out, tens of millions of sharks are killed per year. Whether it is 26, 38, 73, or 100 exactly, it is still tens of millions.

The article you cite sounds more like a scientist wanting to get credit for her hard work than an actual concern that conservation groups are cherry picking the most alarming data from her study.

Shark Diver said...

No way, the author is telling folks that you cannot extrapolate anything from her numbers.

And extrapolate the shark conservation world has, in spades.

What were looking at is ENRON style accounting for shark conservation.

The assumption has always been:

"100 million sharks killed is unsustainable and we are loosing the worlds sharks."

Are we?

What if the number is only 20 million, globally?

Is that sustainable?

What's the goal here? Stop all shark fishing regardless of sustainable fisheries?

I signed up to help sharks come back from the brink, I truly thought that sharks were on the way out and by 2020 we were looking at catastrophic loss.

Now I am not so sure, I want answers.

I am not a Shark Messiah so give me some kind of bedrock to work with.

Now conservation folks know these numbers are essentially a moving target of tea leaves and oracle bones how does conservation, in good faith, appeal to those in power to make the changes needed.

Are changes even needed?

By the way Mr/Ns NGO, how about a name, an org, and a title?

DaShark said...

Hold it hold it! :)

Many species have clearly experienced catastrophic declines, and this very much not only because of the fin trade.
Vast swaths of ocean in Asia are completely denuded of Sharks, large and small, and stocks in the Caribbean, the Northern Atlantic or the Eastern Pacific are but a shadow of what they used to be.

Anybody with any connection to the ocean can attest to that and it is glaringly apparent that this is directly attributable to fishing pressure which is completely unsustainable, or those stocks would not have crashed.

Those are the facts on the ground.
It is also a fact that those marine habitats are generally in terrible shape when compared to only a few decades ago, and it is also highly plausible that removing the apex predators (not only the large Sharks) has contributed to that biodiversity loss.

So, the case for protecting the apex predators, all of which are critically depleted, is sound.

The jury is out as to whether there can be a sustainable Shark fishing industry.
The life history of Sharks is completely different from that of bony fishes and the answer is probably, no there cannot. Shark stocks have declined even in places where they have only been subjected to artisanal subsistence fishing pressure.

Long story short, the case for protecting Sharks is rock solid.

My argument is only that precisely because of it, we do not need to resort to counterproductive hyperbole, be they misleading sound bites or moronic pseudoscientific theories.
They are not only not helpful, they weaken our case by undermining our credibility especially when trying to convince the authorities to enact pro-Shark legislation.

Ms Clarke's piece?
Apart from frustration at being "marginalized" etc, I discern unhelpful statements about Shark fisheries management that I find rather unbecoming.
But where she's right, she's right!

Shark Diver said...

Agreed in part with ya Mike, yes some sharks are in decline, there's enough evidence for that.

But the foundation numbers need to be reworked I hear tell you know of some numbers being worked on now.

Let's wait and see.

Sheli said...

This paper has an excellent chart showing decline percentages with time frames in specific bodies of water on p2:

Jackson, J.B.C., 2008. Colloquium Paper: Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 11458-11465.

The compiled statistics come from the following research papers:

Myers RA, Baum JK, Shepherd TD, Powers SP, Peterson CH (2007) Cascading effects of the loss of apex predatory sharks from a coastal ocean. Science 315:1846 –1850.

Baum JK, et al. (2003) Collapse and conservation of shark populations in the north-west Atlantic. Science 299:389–392.

Baum JK, Myers RA (2004) Shifting baselines and the decline of pelagic sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Ecology Letters 7:135–145.

DaShark said...

Thank you Sheli!

I'll certainly read them once I get my hands on them - tho as you know the Myers conclusions are controversial!

In the meantime, more about the numbers here: http://fijisharkdiving.blogspot.com/2011/08/numbers-conspiracy.html