Friday, March 05, 2010

Dear Mary

Bravo Terry: great Photography amidst a deluge of forgettable pics from Lupe!

I must apologize for the delay in answering your comments.
Thing is, we’re currently incredibly busy (95% doing, 5% ranting) - and I felt that I needed to devote some time to formulating a more exhaustive response.
So there.

First of all, I really want to thank you for having raised your voice in protest - and I commend you for having done it openly.
I know who you are and admire you for your passion, commitment, eloquence and intelligence. We’re clearly not on the same page on this one – but I very much welcome this discussion as I strongly believe that we will only progress by engaging in dialogue, some of which needs to be controversial and robust. And yes, that sometimes includes ranting, especially in the context of a blog like this one!
Let’s however never forget that in the big scheme of things, we’re on the same side and that this is a squabble between friends, not foes!

Let me try to put things into context.
As you know I’m basically a full-time Shark conservationist. I do what I do the way I do it , and I say what I say based on a specific set of assumptions.
Please bear with me if I try and describe them as follows.

Assumption 1

The Big Gorillas are Population Growth and even more problematic (and largely overlooked), the fact that everybody is striving to attain a “better” life which in practical terms translates into increasing one’s Ecological Footprint.
That is simply not sustainable and if left unchecked, the future looks grim indeed – as in: there will be no future!
If so, we will descend into Chaos and Anarchy, and Conservation will be the least of our concerns.

Assumption 2

One of the immediate consequences of the above is that Life expressed in terms of Biodiversity is experiencing a severe bottleneck, especially when it comes to terrestrial habitats where anthropogenic extinctions are rampant.
Hopefully, we will come to the conclusion that this is not what we want (Ed Wilson’s Biophilia) and if we do, the future will consist in some form of less diverse “Nature” which will however not just “be”, but which we will have to actively manage.
Yes that includes Shark stocks, too!

Assumption 3

When it comes to the Oceans, I believe that the situation is somewhat different.

I believe that we generally grossly under-estimate the size, fecundity and regenerative powers of Marine ecosystems.
Yes there’s widespread pollution, habitat degradation and blatant overfishing: but despite of our best efforts, it appears that we’ve “only” managed to exterminate a small number of Marine Mammals, no Marine Cetaceans and, possibly with the exception of some obscure deep-sea Sharks, zero Marine Fishes!

Yes the Cod, Orange Roughy and Chilean Sea Bass fisheries have collapsed and the Northern Bluefin Tuna appears to be critically endangered – but there are still Cod, Orange Roughies and Chilean Seabass and Northern Bluefins and if we just leave them alone, populations will very likely recover. We may pollute and bomb a Reef to smithereens: but just leave it alone, and it will miraculously recover within the shortest period of time.

Those, I understand, are the facts – I’m not saying that this is great and that we should thus feel free to continue to reap and pillage: but anthropogenic terrestrial and marine extinction rates are clearly very different.

Consequently, I advocate the creation of a multitude of MPAs (the more and bigger, the better) where Biodiversity can shelter in order to re-colonize the surroundings once we finally decide to just leave them alone.
That’s the good news.

Assumption 4

The bad news is that anthropogenic Climate Change and especially, its ugly cousin Ocean Acidification (read this!) may indeed tip the scale towards a total collapse of Marine habitats and related widespread Marine extinctions.
If so, all for which we so valiantly fight (and rant) will have been for naught.

But one has to choose one’s fights and like in the case of the Big Gorillas, this is not where I’ve chosen to be active. We at BAD are however certainly trying to make a (ridiculously small) contribution by always trying to reduce our Carbon footprint and advocating a greener lifestyle.
Let’s just hope that a Nobel Prize and an Oscar will prove sufficient to sway the masses (and the politicians!) to do the right thing – tho after Copenhagen, I’m far from believing that this is anywhere close to being a done deal…

Assumption 5

Species protection does not work. What works is habitat protection.

Assumption 6

I believe that the totality of resources (as in people, brain power, time and money) available to Conservation (and incidentally, to Research) is finite.
And not only that: the sum has been decreasing due to the global recession and also due to the plethora of other competing “worthy” causes, as in Haiti, AIDS, teenage pregnancies, poverty alleviation and-so-on-and so forth – many of which, alas, are directly contributing to making the Big Gorilla even bigger!

If the above is true, and I believe it is, we are looking at a classical zero sum game whereby if we invest any resources into a particular project, we are automatically crippling other projects.

To me, the inevitable consequence of the above is that we must define our priorities and invest those resources prudently and with a view to attaining the best possible results in the most effective and efficient way – very much like the ROI in the “real” world.
And like in the “real” world, we have an obligation to question the efficiency and effectiveness of those different projects and to hold the project leaders accountable - for their success but also for their failure, and this in absolute terms but also, in relative terms when compared to possible alternatives!

Take The Cove: all that hype and praise irritates me!
The movie decries the fact that some Japanese trap some Dolphins, a non-endangered species, in Japan. Some are exported for Dolphin shows; some are killed in unethical ways and then eaten. Certainly all very disturbing - but that's a (legitimate) animal welfare and not a conservation issue!

Did I hear: "sentient being"? And the Vaquita? Please read the link!
Couldn’t all those resources have helped in trying to reverse the decline of the Vaquita, maybe the most critically endangered Cetacean – the more as its demise is very much happening just south of the border? And who, please, is fighting for the Yangtze Dolphin?

Am I entitled to ask those questions?

I also believe that in this day-and-age, the only justification for investing those scarce resources into biological Research is that it directly benefits Conservation and that it satisfies the most stringent ethical imperatives.
And, we must strive to avoid redundant duplications (please, no more tagging of Pacific GWs!), we must oblige scientists to collaborate (which they mostly do) and we must ask that those scientists we finance produce regular results as expressed in scientific publications, etc.

As an example, I’m highly distressed when I hear that Taxonomy, the science that documents Biodiversity, is on the decline, to the point that an increasing number of Institutions are dropping it from the curriculum, that the current Taxonomists have issues of succession and that funding for expeditions is drying up.
Did you know that Jack Randall, the greatest Fish Taxonomist in history, is currently unemployed and unfunded? How is that possible???

And why are there so many competing research projects, NGOs and initiatives targeting the very same issues and incidentally, squandering so much money on aggregate overhead? How can that be beneficial to the cause?
In that regard, Kudos for having established the SSN – very much the way to go!

Now when it comes to Shark Conservation, which is what I do.

Assumption 7

I believe that apart from the doomsday scenarios of Climate Change and Ocean Acidification, the biggest threat to Sharks is overfishing.
In that, I’m partly contradicting my previous argument about the Ocean’s unbridled regenerative powers. I do this in view of the fact that Sharks have a much lower fecundity than most Fishes and that some populations seem to be quite small, as in, apparently, 3-4,000 in the case of GW and maybe even less for some deep-water species.

Assumption 8

I however also believe that the status of Shark stocks is not uniformly catastrophic but that it varies according to species and to regions.
The consequence is that in order to be credible and efficient, we should prioritize our resources in order to direct them to the preservation of those species that are most threatened.
Trivial – but are we doing so?

Assumption 9

The ultimate solution to overfishing is not prohibition, it is to fish sustainably.
This is a central theme of this blog.
The sooner we accept that, the sooner we'll be able to help the Sharks.

In a nutshell, I believe that killing Sharks for food is OK as long as it is done sustainably.
This means that where they are depleted, stocks must be allowed to recover and after that, fishing quotas must remain below the rate of replenishment. I believe that to be true of all fisheries, be it for Sardines, Tuna, Sharks or, yes, Whales!

The practice of finning however is a completely different topic: it is ethically reprehensible for being both wasteful and extremely cruel and needs to be stopped.

Assumption 10

I believe that the fisheries for Sharks (i.e. mainly for their fins) is supply limited, meaning that the demand for Shark Fins greatly outweighs the supply. This is why Shark fins remain one of the most expensive marine commodities.

No clue why the soup has gone down-market.
Maybe because the Shark fishermen catch more Sharks? Maybe because they have reduced their overhead/fin by becoming more efficient? Maybe because cheaper soups contain less desirable and thus cheaper fins? Maybe because there are less fins in one unit of cheap soup?

Anyway, if that is true, I believe that targeting the demand is a very very long shot indeed!
Take your example: 200 posters were noticed by 19% of Beijingers, of which 82% said that they would forego the soup – gives a penetration of 16%.
Now, as I said, if the demand were 4 times the supply, you would need a penetration of more than 75% before a single Shark (!!!) would be spared! How many eaters of soup are there? How many is 75% of that? How many posters would have to be deployed where? How much would that cost?
Is that realistic? Is that the best possible way of investing those resources?
And if it is not – may I criticize it?

One common friend sent me a message stating that when Shark conservationists squabble, no Sharks are being saved.
I disagree! “Squabbling” about the most efficient strategies does save Sharks if it improves the strategies and saves more Sharks! And again, this is never meant ad personam, at least not by yours truly – tho I understand that it may come across as such, which is deplorable but sometimes inevitable!

Anyway, with that in mind, I believe that Shark Conservation should target the supply side by concentrating on the Countries where the Sharks are being caught and exported from and where their demise is creating the biggest negative impact.
Yes that may sometimes be a long shot, too – but I strongly believe that given the right amount of resources and flanked by education and alternatives for the fishermen, it still is the better strategy.

I believe this to be true because it is in the ultimate interest of those Countries to preserve their stocks at sustainable levels and to avoid the collapse of their Marine Ecosystems.

The bulk of the consumers, on the other hand, must only contend with issues of availability and price, and if you’re lucky, with ethical considerations - IMO, not a very strong motivator for changing one’s habits.
Sure did nothing for Rhinos and Elephants, another supply limited commodity – whereas protecting them in Africa seems to work.

And talking of ethics: this is why I did propose the certified Shark Fin soup as an alternative to changing habits altogether.

With that in mind, I believe that the way to go is as follows – and yes, think “Rhinos and Elephants”.

A. The establishment of MPAs in order to preserve the Sharks’ habitats.
Here, I believe that we already dispose of a global network that needs to be activated, and that is us in the Dive Industry. Every single dive operator should be held accountable for protecting the resource he derives his sustenance from – this not only because it’s only fair and ethical, but also because it’s good business!

As an example, the single most photographed, filmed and loved Shark in the Universe is Emma.
So, why are all those countless Emma- and Shark-loving bigwigs not actively engaged in getting Emma and Tiger Beach protected – or are they, very much silently, petition-less and behind the scenes? Yes the “political” situation is complicated and some feathers may well get ruffled – but then, when was Conservation easy? And how much sweeter could success possibly be?
Or am I just ranting – again?

B. The establishment of pro-Shark legislation.
No widespread conservation is possible without the adequate legislative framework.
Achieving this is not trivial but certainly not impossible. Most Governments are open to good arguments, the principal one being that the indiscriminate slaughter of Sharks has devastating effects rippling down through the trophic chain, all the way to the demise of entire Marine ecosystems.

Generally, this consists in advocating sustainable fisheries and ideally, moratoriums (all the way to Shark Sanctuaries) as long as some stocks are too depleted or until there are sufficient data to determine sustainable levels.
The recent protection of Lemon Sharks in Florida is an excellent example of the former and the Honduran moratorium, an excellent example of the latter.

Can this be replicated in, say, Yemen? I betcha it can – but somebody has to go and do it! Who, and who’s going to pay for that?
And how about Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico where the fishermen are slaughtering “our” Scalloped Hammerheads? Don’t know if it has: but if not, shouldn’t Sharkwater rather be translated into Spanish and be shown there, where it happens?

How many Shark fishing countries have no pro-Shark legislation and what can be done to change that?

C. Which leads me straight over to the need for effective enforcement.
Now this is really the biggest challenge of them all. Here, we are confronted with a lack of resources, often coupled with indifference and corruption, especially in lesser developed countries. This I believe is where we need to direct the bulk of our resources, be it in terms of personal efforts, funds and hardware but also, education and the establishment of alternatives for the fishermen.

In Fiji, we currently compensate the fishermen for not fishing in the MPA but also employ Fish Wardens who have the authority to enforce the law.
And we’re pretty big in outreach, via the local media all the way to a local PSA but also, our youth sponsorship program and presentations to local communities.
In the future, we would like to expand Shark awareness to the school curriculum – but we simply lack the necessary time and manpower and are thus currently trying to outsource it to one of the local NGOs.

D. We should also sponsor research so that our decisions are backed by objective data.
As you know, this is one of the cornerstones of our Fiji Project.

E. "Other"?

Shark Free Marinas Initiative anybody?
Yes the initiator may, or may not be the Antichrist – but is it saving Sharks? Incredibly efficiently so, as signing up costs precisely zero?
21 in Fiji – and how many in the USA? Australia? South Africa? Asia?
How about that for petty squabbling and tribalism huh.

My hunch is that they only make sense when coupled with real action “on the ground”.
Thus, I believe that the Florida Lemon Shark petition and the Hawaii Shark Preservation letter campaign were useful in reinforcing the arguments of the people pursuing those local projects. I believe that the Discovery petition was largely a flop because nobody really cared to go and pursue any direct follow-up with the network – though having said this, I hear that things there may be changing, hopefully for the better.
The other petitions, to me, are just a total waste of time – especially all those competing “stop finning” gigs! More than happy to be proven wrong though!

Not convinced!
Conservation is about hard facts, hard and often tedious work, perseverance and commitment, often difficult negotiations.
Yes, and of course passion – but passion alone just aint good enough!

All-to-often, activism is just too hopelessly amateurish, too emotional, too little fact-based, too confrontational and too little solution-oriented. Too often, I fear that it harms rather than being helpful. Too often, I get the impression that the perpetrators are mainly interested in personal aggrandizement and that the initiatives are nothing but marketing stunts – and this includes many of those pro-Shark websites which are so long on pontificating and petitions and so short on results!

And what about our own ideologies and stereotypes. Very unhelpful.
“Sharks” are not “misunderstood”, at least not by the people who take the time to learn about them! People who don’t take the time to learn about dogs “misunderstand” them – wow, what a profound message!
Which species are we talking about anyway: Whale Sharks? Cookie Cutters? Swell Sharks?
Do we “understand” them?

Yes I’m being facetious - but seriously: our biggest capital is to be honest and objective, especially when we are trying to counter the anti-Shark stereotypes!
Romanticizing interactive encounters with large predatory Sharks is stupid and as such, bad marketing. Using numbers that are based on conjecture and untested (although certainly plausible) hypotheses is counter productive. Right now, the only verified number is approx. 30 to 70, which is 50 and not 100, full stop – and that’s just a number, it says nothing about sustainability which is all that counts!

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?

In a way, it is the very deluge of platitudes, pseudoscience and exaggerated doomsday scenarios in all those pedestrian wannabee Sharkwater clones that has helped spawn rubbish like Shark Con – and I’m certainly gonna leave it at that, the more as I firmly believe that we should just ignore it and not contribute to its marketing by engaging in the usual vociferous con-troversies!

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?

There you have it Mary!
This is basically where I personally come from - and yes, alas, it includes a lot of skepticism!
But having said this, we’ve certainly come a long long way and I remain very hopeful that we will succeed in turning things around!

Dunno if I’ve managed to adequately address your reservations.
But I’m thankful for having been given the chance to put things into context.

You too, take care!


Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

The simple fact is there are no absolutes with fisheries laws and regulations.

One might think there is but unless you have spent any amount of time on a long liner (I have) or know the large scale fishing industry, you're working in the dark.

I am in New Zealand right now observing both sharks and the fisheries industry, one would be shocked at what one sees here, and this is an evolved country.

Da Shark comes from a realistic world and brings to the table thoughts that lead to action on issues by all parties.

You start conservation by giving all parties a platform to stand on.

The shark fin question is one that needs several approaches.

Monolithic absolutes like "Ban Shark Finning" are nifty slogans that look good on websites but do not address multi nation fisheries, enforcement, monitoring, supply chain, or a host of real world issues.

The Shark Messiahs within the community are useful to a point, but seriously, does anyone with any sense at all think for one minute a full court ban on shark fins will ever happen?

Not as long as shark fin are worth 300-1000 a kilo.

Conservation dreams and desires, not matter how passionate, do not equate conservation success.

You have to slow down a runaway truck before you can apply the breaks.

Mike, keep thinking out loud sir.

DaShark said...

Thank you sir, appreciate!

We're getting there, one step at a time - I'm actually very optimistic!

Wolfgang Leander said...

Rarely have I read a more informative and intelligent blog about shark conservation!

Generally speaking, if there was a Pulitzer prize for blog-writing, you'd win it.

Also good to have interactive readers like Mary and Patric.


DaShark said...

Thank you Wolf!

Coming from you, this means a lot!

Nico Danan said...

Thanks to Felix(leander) I have discovered your blog. I couldn't agree more about your assumptions. Especially on how it is important to preserve habitat versus specific species and another top priority stop wasting ressources (people's time and money) when it comes to preservation. Thanks for this realistic and pragmatic post. The Environment needs new leaders and new ways and it seems to me that you are showing a path worth following.


DaShark said...

Thanks Nico!

A friend just wrote me

"My take?
Sharks are the new Dolphin.
So many folks getting onto the bandwagon because its a cool thing to do. 50 year old housewives setting up 'shark conservation' facebooks based solely on exaggerated claims and unfounded fishing data.
They spout the only way sharks can survive is if followers sign into their program and their program only. Its like, they hold the key in their manicured, "oh I snorkeled with a Nurse Shark once", blinkered way."

Pretty frightening if you ask me!

Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

That's why we're switching to "Bulbous Frog Hounds."

Oh, you laugh now but where was Wolf 10 years ago when no one gave a rats ass about sharks?

A lone and passionate voice in the woods, that's where.

The safe bet on the new shark/dolphin is with the rare Bulbous Frog Hounds.

Frog Hound hunters only take the very tip of the blue tongue on these critters and leave the rest of the animal to die.


Website and action alerts next week, let's save some Frog Hounds!

Mark Harding said...

A great blog. Again!! Socio-politically challenging in all the right ways. What does need to be addressed is the chasm that exists between political opinion making and subsequent formation(i.e. thoughts such as yours actually creating action forming deeds), and the seemingly otherwordly political correctness of the science/grant/funding scenario. It is pretty widely accepted that most majot NGO's tread a very PC line as they are trying to draw interest (donations) from the widest possible audience. Therefore, their subsequently funded field scientists, are by default restricted to toeing the party line. If one is funded by a large NGO, one cannot be seen to be doing anything other than what that funding NGO wishes one to be seen to be doing. This then creates two distinct sectors within the conservation movement. Those that have the luxury of a research grant, and those that have the luxury of saying exactly what they want without anyone breathing down their neck. The latter tend to be the ones creating much of the thought process behind the movement. Let's face it, there are many good thinkers who do not have the means to do direct research, these are the 'esfuerza politica' that help to drive the petition machine that can and should be applied to relevant applied research, drived from the data achieved by the scientists and researchers. You are dead right, infighting and argument create clarity and raise questions, and make our machine run that much smoother. Debate should be encouraged, not smothered.

DaShark said...

Thanks Mark!

"Socio-politically challenging" huh... (:

Just trying to connect the dots - more for my own sake actually, not because I'm trying to play the messiah or the like.

Yes alas, there's a lot of BS going on out there, be it for reasons of PC (in Conservation??? oh tempora...) or simply because people don't appear willing to think things through but prefer shooting from the hip in order to attain instant gratification.

As to the "movement", it is what it his, highly chaotic - but at least it's moving!