Monday, August 15, 2011

The Numbers - a Conspiracy?

It's estimated that there are 100 million sharks killed every year.
This total has such caché it even has its own moniker; ‘The Magic Number'.

But in today's world, where big numbers wash over us with indifference, ‘One Hundred Million' is losing it's lustre. Most of us owe that on our credit cards. So shark conservationists are continually polishing ‘The Magic Number' to keep us hooked.
Scare mongering or just plain scary?

This according to Howard Sawyer.
The citation is from The People who count Sharks, a piece I've already linked to last November. But after Ms Clarke's public wail of despair, it is well worth re-reading. It eloquently develops the case for why the numbers are faulty and it also hints, so far only obliquely, at the fact that we may all be the victims of a despicable conspiracy perpetrated by an unholy alliance of self serving conservationists and researchers. Oh how very Shark Con and incidentally, how very Global Warming! :)
Totally not so, see below - but it's a good read so please do.

Incidentally, have you finally read the paper?
Yes I know it's the poster child of horrible scientific gibberish that appears to have been written specifically in the purpose of confusing any layman, yours truly included. I've honestly tried to decipher whether the numbers refer to the period of 1996-2000 or to 2000 alone and have failed miserably - even after re-reading Ms Clarke's wail that is equally unhelpful: what does as of 2000, the fins of 38 million sharks per year were being traded mean, exactly: in 2000, on average in the five years leading up to 2000 - or what?
Also and owing to the many assumptions made in reaching the above conclusion, there is a staggering error margin which is expressed in the fact that the authors point out that the number could have been as low as 26m (-32%) or as high as 73m (+92%). Not very conducive to instilling any degree of confidence in its scientific accuracy is it. And incidentally, have you ever asked yourself why 73 and not, say, 72.5m?
Divide it by 365 days. See? Purely coincidental? :)

Anyway, this is how I interpret it - correct me if I'm wrong.
Between 1996 and 2000, the global Shark fin market was processing the fins of tens of millions of Sharks every year.

And that's it!
When it comes to the global markets for Shark fins, this is actually the only assertion the paper makes, meaning that:
  • nobody knows for what purpose those Sharks were killed (actually, we don't even know whether all have been killed or whether a few may have died of natural causes in an aquarium or the like - but I'm obviously splitting hairs), ie for their fins or principally for food or in self defense or for research - or for no purpose at all because they were mere bycatch, one of the major causes of Shark mortality!

  • nobody knows how those Sharks were killed, ie caught on long lines or in gill nets, purse seines, drift nets or in bottom trawling gear, or shot by spear gun or harpooned or caught in fish traps, etc

  • nobody knows how many of those Sharks were finned and the bodies dumped overboard, and whether the Sharks were alive or dead when that happened
but much more importantly,
  • nobody knows how many more Sharks whose fins were NOT introduced into the fin trade died during 1996-2000!

  • nobody knows what happened in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010
Does that mean that we don't know anything about what's going on now?
Well, in a way, that's exactly what it means - but of course there are published data about trade volumes after 2000, although they are widely believed to be highly inaccurate as reported volumes are thought to be way too low as they do not comprise IUU, and as some Countries do not report at all.

But, nobody is preventing us from speculating.
We can make plausible assumptions and back-of-the envelope calculations that will however remain untested hypotheses as long as nobody engages in the tedious work of properly verifying or falsifying them using the Scientific Method, likely by meta-analysis of the data that have been published as opposed to going out and trying to obtain original data sets.

Provided that we are honest and declare that we are speculating, it is I believe safe to assume that today, the Shark fin market is larger than ten years ago, tho as the following oldish graph illustrates, this is not just simply a given as local Shark stocks get exhausted and new legislation may curtail the activity.
Click for detail.

Anyway, assuming the fin market has grown, do we know by how much and starting from which baseline?
No we do not.

It is also I believe totally logical to assume that the total number of Sharks that are being killed each year is larger than the number of Sharks whose fins are being traded thru the fin markets.
Once again, we however don't know by which factor - especially nowadays where each and every fisherman knows of their value and knows how to contact a friendly middleman who will be eager to buy & aggregate them and then ship them to Asia.

So, let's look at some of the statements.

Over 200,000 Million Sharks are taken each year, many illegally, caught to support a growing industry for shark products in the Asian market. Most fins being used as a starch to thicken Shark Fin soup which has no taste but is thought to have magical properties and a sign of wealth!...
... is just plain ludicrous - no it is NOT over 200 Billion (!) Sharks and the fins got nothing to do with starch nor are they believed to be magical!
I mean, seriously...

How about
Every year, about 100 million sharks are brutally murdered and of these 100 million, an estimated 73 million to 100 million of the deaths are results of shark finning, the process in which a shark’s fin is cut off and the shark is thrown back into the ocean to die. If this continues at the rate it is at right now, all 440 species of sharks may be extinct within the next decade or two. The population of sharks as a whole has already dropped 95% since the 1970s, simply due to finning.
OK(-ish) for the approx 100 million but nobody is estimating that 73 to 100m are being finned, let alone alive, nobody but a fool is asserting that all species will be extinct within the next 10-20 years and there is no statistic whatsoever showing that 95% of all stocks have been wiped out since the 70ies, let alone finned!

And the ubiquitous
Up to 73m Sharks are being killed each year, or statements that the growing demand for shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, kills between 26 and 73 million sharks a year, or People kill 73 million sharks per year (Really? Not even a modest "up to"?) and the like?
Better but still inaccurate! These are numbers from 10 years ago - can anybody show me a single trade statistic that has remained unchanged since? Plus, these numbers suggest some degree of accuracy - what if in reality, the 2010 number turned out to be, say, 87 million?

So, what is going on?
Is this a nefarious conspiracy by Shark conservationists and researchers who want to perpetuate their job at the expense of the poor fishermen?

My call?
Many Shark conservationists are hopelessly ill informed, and a few may well be inflating the numbers as they are under the completely misguided impression that doing so will make for a better case - but that's that. These are well meaning people who try to do good but with inadequate means.

The NGOs?
One would assume that they would know better but once again, many probably simply do not and parrot what others have asserted before them - tho it looks like a very few very small ones have long relinquished the path of credibility, scientific and otherwise, and are merely the marketing arm of personal inflated egos!

And the researchers?
To my knowledge, none of them is asserting any of that nonsense - and if they did, they would have to elaborate on how they have come to that conclusion or they would have to kiss their scientific gravitas and career goodbye!
With one exception that is, the token whacknut - but then, what did I say about the gravitas etc?

A conspiracy?
Hell no
, it's merely a motley group of well meaning, mostly ill informed people and orgs wanting to do the right thing.
Me too, I've sinned in the past, as in here.

But now, I know better.

Now, I say stuff like
We know that ten years ago, about forty million of sharks were being killed each year - and now, that number is probably even higher!
or if I want to keep it short
Tens of millions of Sharks are being killed each year
But then, I add
What we DO know is that this is completely unsustainable and that it causes grave and permanent damage to our oceans - which I believe is the far more important statement!

But is that really so?
How many Sharks are there, and are we killing 1%, 2%, 10%, 30% of them each year? Is there such a thing as sustainable Shark fishing and if so, what is the Maximum Sustainable Yield? What happens if we kill too many? And if we stop killing them, will they multiply unchecked like Savyer's Serengeti lions (bollocks: ever heard of trophic pyramids and predator-prey cycles?) and start devouring us, as Capt'n Bill rants?
More of this in an upcoming post!

For now, this much.
This is never happening in a vacuum - this is being used to advocate legislation that will deprive fishermen of income and quite possibly, of their livelihoods. With that in mind, we owe it to them, but also, to ourselves not to cheat and to use misleading perceived "marketing", or whatever, but to be truthful and fact based instead.

Yes Bill is clearly mental - but he is also wily and will catch on to our shenanigans, so why do we continue to provide easy fodder for people like him?
The situation for many, if not most species of Shark is really, really dire and there's absolutely no need whatsoever to inflate numbers and to come up with ludicrous propositions like the moronic correlation to the ocean's production of oxygen which is my current pet grievance.

And then there's this.
Assume we succeed in having laws enacted based on misleading data - what would prevent the legislators from repealing them once we got caught out?
Think we would ever get a second chance after such a fiasco?

So, let's do it right from the outset.
Let's inform ourselves and then, let's just say it as it is.
That, and not cheating will have us win this fight in the long run.



OfficetoOcean said...

Top blog Mate and all very true!

Anonymous said...

And I expect the fishing industry to play the same -- even though the universal stereotype of a fisherman is....

Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

Doubling down:

Why do I suddenly feel like Martin Luther?

Or is it Lex Luther?

I always get them confused, one was good right?

Angelo Villagomez said...

I think Lex and Da Shark have the same barber.

DaShark said...

Dunno if I like the analogy - doesn't the guy always lose in the end?