Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shark Conservation: macro issues for the decision-makers

When discussing shark conservation, we typically focus on what could be called the "micro" or personal/public issues: shark finning, demand for shark fin soup and other shark products. These are important hot button issues that have emotional impact on the individual and can impact public demand. But there are also "macro" big picture issues that require action on the part of governments and/or commercial operations. Here are a few:

According to the Australian Journal of Agriculture and Resource Economics, illegal foreign fishing for sharks in Northern Australia has increased substantially over the last two decades. Not only has this affected the overall shark populations in the area, but it has possibly impacted the legal prawn, shark, and other fisheries due to altered predation patterns. Government intervention and enforcement is needed to protect both the sharks and the legal commercial fisheries.

When we think of Asian demand for shark products, we often think of Asian commercial fishing fleets supplying that demand. Not always so. Ecuador is one nation that meets the demand but the extant of its efforts have been seriously under-reported over the years (if reported at all), escaping the attention, until recently, of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). A study in Environmental Sciences reconstructs Ecuador's shark catch from 1979 to 2004 and puts the total at an estimated 7000 tons per year or nearly 500,000 sharks - 3.6 times greater than the FAO reported for 1991 to 2004. Ecuador has been hiding a dirty little secret.

Pelagic longline fishing (PLL) has been roundly criticized by many conservation groups because of, among other things, its level of accidental bycatch - much of which can consist of sharks. In the U.S. Atlantic, PLL has a strong impact on blue shark populations along with other species. An article in Reviews of Fish Biology and Fisheries examined this situation and studied, among other issues, the negative economic and operational impacts of shark bycatch in the form of damage to fishing gear, bait, and complications in shark management. It was determined that it was in the best interest of all stakeholders in the Atlantic to explore methods to reduce shark bycatch. Once again, finding an economic advantage is often the best way to motivate government or commercial decision-makers to respond to conservation issues.

Promoting these macro issues is where many responsible NGOs come in - organizations like Oceana, Seaweb, Center for Biological Diversity, and others. Many of these groups are based in Washington D.C. and other worldwide centers of political power and influence where they focus their efforts and resources towards taking the fight right to the top.

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