Monday, December 7, 2009

Shark Conservation: the need to resonate on a personal level

I have said in the past that shark conservation is a tough sell. Whether it's the public's general uneasiness with sharks thanks to years of over-sensationalized media or an ingrained cultural bias towards shark products (or seafood in general), gaining converts throughout the masses has been challenging. Part of that lies in the difficulty in making a personal connection, making an argument that resonates within the individual - "this will affect me." But sometimes it's the opposition that, unfortunately, is able to accomplish that to their advantage.

Case in point: If you have been reading some of the shark conservation blogs or web sites, you may have read about a recent study that detailed how U.S. scientists were able to use DNA testing to trace the origin of shark fins for sale in Hong Kong. It turned out that 21% of the fins tested came from endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks from the western Atlantic. A ground-breaking study because it established an accurate method for determining the species and geographic source of a shark fin and because it put Hong Kong's lucrative shark fin market on notice.

Those are the basic facts that caught the attention of most shark advocates. But what caught my eye was the response from the shark fin industry's representative. In criticising the study, Mak Ching-po, chairman of the Hong Kong Dried Seafood and Grocery Merchants Association, said, "Shark populations will grow exponentially if we don't keep fishing them. As a result, humans will be in short supply of smaller fish such as garoupa, as sharks will eat them."

Clever. Fiendishly clever because he just made it personal.

Sure, there's a kind of pretzel logic here: if we don't overfish the sharks, we won't be able to overfish the other fish in the sea. But the sinister beauty in what he said is how it will resonate subtly with the Asian people, a population that has been heavily dependent on seafood for centuries: If we can't fish the sharks, you will go hungry.

Or how about the continued use of shark nets at Australian recreational beaches. Despite the number of sharks and other large sea animals not deterred but killed by these nets, their use is still being supported. Why? Because it's personal. Overtly or covertly, the issue becomes: without the nets, you will be eaten.

Regardless of how weak or illogical the argument, if the listener can make a personal connection then the argument will have some traction. This unfortunate aspect of human nature has been exploited in other areas. It's a mainstay of political campaigns. Some who deny the impact of climate change often turn to fanciful Orwellian conspiracy arguments because people are sensitive and distrustful of intrusive government, real or imagined. Climate change proponents will explain ongoing changes that, for many people, are taking place in faraway, remote places; so curiosity, sympathy, or even a few well-meaning baby steps might be achieved but decisive action lies just out of reach - because it hasn't hit home hard enough. It's still very complicated, abstract or nebulous.

That's why you will see more personal connections trying to be made at the Copenhagen Climate Conference that began this week, connections that link climate change to human misery that is happening right now. (A past post of mine cited a UN report that attributed 300,000 deaths annually to climate change.)

But I digress. . . For shark conservation to really have an impact on the general population, the argument needs to be distilled to very personal messages. To say that the loss of reef sharks will disrupt the marine ecology to where we will lose coral or even oxygen is perhaps possible but may be a bit too abstract for most people to embrace. To position sharks as warm and friendly to man, while agreeable to some ardent shark fans, really pushes the envelope beyond what the everyday individual can accept. (Just look at how those "shark huggers" are always portrayed as irresponsible in the media.)

International organizations like CITES, the IUCN, and legislation like the U.S. Senate Bill S850 look after the big picture. We must support these efforts as they set the framework for regulation and, hopefully, enforcement. But to impact the market demand (which can fuel legal and illegal activities), we must make personal connections to win the hearts and minds of the general public.

It's not easy. When I speak with people, I always emphasize the important role sharks play as predators and scavengers; I don't downplay it. But I will try to distill it down to a simple message. In fact my message is the opposite of Mr. Ching-po: without sharks, other fish populations - fish populations that some people depend on - would potentially be less healthy, their numbers would be impacted. Sometimes I see it working, sometimes the light bulbs of recognition turn on - and sometimes not.

Think about personal connections that will resonate with people who are perhaps less committed than you to conserving animals like sharks. Use them and feel free to share them here in this blog.

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