Monday, November 23, 2009

Too Many!

I did like Patric's Sunday Sermon.

It's in the comments section of this post, after which he has posted this one.
Both deal with the numbers circulated by some Shark activists and warn that if we argue with faulty data, we lose credibility and ultimately harm the cause. All very truthful, important and timely indeed.

Thing is, maybe it's really not that much of an issue as nobody really knows what's going on anyway.

Take the assertion that 90% of all Sharks have been wiped out.

Cookie Cutter Sharks? Greenland Sharks? Whale Sharks? Pigeye Sharks?
I've said it before, like "Birds", "Sharks" is an amorphous concept that leaves very little scope for generalizations. What we seem to know is that the stocks of some of the large, oceanic species like Silky, Oceanic Whitetip, Blue, Scalloped Hammerhead and the Threshers that are being targeted in tandem with other apex predators like the Tuna and the Billfishes have collapsed. Other coastal species, like e.g. the Caribbean Reef, Bull and Tiger appear to fare better and are still locally abundant.
Clearly, the assertion is not true - but then, what is?

Think baseline count, the original 100%.
Do we have that information?
I'm inclined to believe that when somebody tells me that over 90% of the large Sharks in the Mediterranean have been wiped out, it is based on fact. The Mediterranean Sea is surrounded by many highly developed countries that could well have established the apparatus for collecting population data and for monitoring any fishing taking place there, and the changes that the relatively recent industrial exploitation of Fish stocks have brought about in the last 30-40 years.
But how about, say, Yemen, another place where there is a large Shark fishing industry? Do you really believe that there are reliable data about the Sharks being landed in comparison to before, or a reliable census of Shark stocks in the Southern Red Sea compared to 1960?

And with that in mind, are the numbers of Sharks killed every year really between 25 and 75 million? 100 million? Or even between 150 and 200 million as one Shark conservation website claims?
And again: is that relevant? What species are we talking about? And how do those numbers relate to the total size of the relevant stocks and the carrying capacity of their habitat? Is that 1%, 10% per annum, or is it more than that? And what is the rate at which those stocks replenish?

Thing is, nobody knows and all of the numbers that are being circulated are nothing more than elaborate and more or less plausible estimates, with huge discrepancies based on individual assumptions (how much goes under- or un-reported, etc) and mathematical models.
Thus, the theoretically impeccable rule postulated on an interesting and intelligent conservation biology blog, that one needs to manage populations in function of the minimum viable population size is certainly highly interesting - in theory. But in practice, it's utterly useless and once again, nothing but an erudite crapshoot when applied to the urgent need to preserve marine species that are often spread across immense areas. Is it really plausible to postulate that approx. 5,000 Blue Sharks spread across the vastness of the Oceans would ensure that the species would survive? And who, please, would be able to count, let alone manage them?

But as I said, the numbers are rather irrelevant anyway.
What is relevant, I believe, is that anybody who has knowledge of the Sea is aware that the marine environment in general and Sharks in particular are in real bad shape.
I remember sailing into Cocos’ Chatham Bay in the eighties and there would be Shark fins crisscrossing the surface everywhere, and heaps of huge Silvertips on every dive. Or sitting at Dirty Rock and witnessing a never ending procession of Hammerheads that would completely fill my field of vision - up, down, left and right, as far as I could see. They were thousands - and today, a couple of hundred are a major event. Or take the Silvertips on the Burma Banks and the guaranteed Whale Shark sightings at Richelieu Rock: gone, likely forever. Or diving with Blue Sharks off San Diego: not anymore commercially viable.
And the list goes on and on and on.

This, and not a set of numbers that are not very tangible and may, or may not be factually correct is why many of us have become Shark conservation advocates.

Want a number, as in how many?
How about: Too Many!

The principal threat to large oceanic Sharks is the fishing industry that targets their fins. This fishery appears to be unsustainable, as witnessed by the reported regional (and some say: global) collapse of stocks.
Here, the main thrust of any conservation efforts needs to be sustainability: first, the stocks that have been overly depleted need to be allowed to recover and after that, one has to agree on quotas. All of that should be based on proper data that so far are largely lacking and until they have been gathered, it is imperative to apply the precautionary principle, operate under worst-case scenarios and to err on the side of caution.
But once the data have been collected, we must be willing to compromise and to allow for the sustainable (and ethical, meaning no finning) harvesting of Sharks as long as there will be demand for their fins – and yes, for the umpteenth time, I’m repeating myself!

On the other hand, and very much depending on location, the principal threat to coastal Sharks appears to be habitat degradation coupled with fishing pressure.
Here, on top of promoting sustainable fishing, one needs to focus on preserving the habitat, be it coral reefs or the equally important nursery areas. This is precisely the kind of work conducted by us here in Fiji, by having established a marine reserve, by now focusing our work on the river nurseries and by sponsoring plenty of research aimed at helping us take the correct decisions. And yes, we’re also engaged in promoting pro-Shark legislation, conservation and awareness.

There’s much to do and it’s not going to be easy.
But maybe contrary to others, I really do believe that it’s neither impossible nor too late.
Shark conservation has come a long way and despite of the inevitable setbacks, we thankfully appear well on course to changing perceptions and to finally depict and treat Sharks as what they are: not unpredictable monsters nor misunderstood pets – but charismatic predators that like their terrestrial counterparts need to be respected and above all, to be protected as they are important and often essential elements of their habitats which they help to regulate.

Long story short: everybody who loves Sharks will find a suitable niche where he can make a useful contribution.
But like Patric, I just wish that everyone could abstain from gratuitous sensationalism and activism and really focus on the task at hand, to engage in effective and pragmatic Shark conservation. That includes less idle chat and more hard and often tedious and frustrating work, less dogmatism and more compromise, less propaganda and more hard facts, less infighting and more coordination, less squandering of precious and finite resources and goodwill.

And above all: lots of love and respect for the animals and passion for the cause!

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