Saturday, December 12, 2009

Shark News: improved regulations in Florida; handling conspiracy buzz

Two issues regarding shark conservation: one encouraging; the other not so encouraging, if not down right annoying.

Florida Tightens Rules:
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission recently took additional steps to improve the protection and management of sharks within Florida waters. The commission prohibited the harvesting of sandbar, silky, and Caribbean sharpnose sharks and extended the minimum catch size to 54-inches on approximately 14 shark species. This will decrease the take of juvenile sharks and hopefully improving the chance for better reproduction rates. Additionally, the new rules require that sharks are to be taken by hook-and-line only and must be brought back whole - the head and tails cannot be removed at sea, as has been currently happening. This allows for better monitoring and management of catch levels by government officials.

A lot of attention amongst shark advocates has been placed on protection of Florida's lemon sharks - sharks that have been gaining considerable interest with commercial shark fisheries for the shark fin market. Lemon sharks can congregate in large numbers in shallow water and this makes them a potentially easy catch. The Florida commission has responded with a proposed rule that prohibits recreational and commercial harvesting of lemon sharks in Florida waters. This is a great step on the commission's part but it is only a proposal - meaning it's subject to a period of public comment before being acted upon or rejected. You can expect plenty of comment from conservationists and commercial or sportfishing interests alike. And I am sure there will be plenty of pro-lemon shark petitions circulating for you to consider.

Read FWC press release.

Shark Con and the 100 Million Debate: The less-than-encouraging news has to do with a soon-to-be-released documentary that purports a conspiracy within the shark conservation/shark ecotourism community. It all started with an issue of concern - the possible exaggeration of the worldwide shark catch numbers. Ever heard the figure 100 million sharks killed each year? I'm sure you have but that number is being challenged or questioned (and perhaps rightfully so). But the concern for accuracy is being manipulated into being the tip of the iceberg of some worldwide conspiracy to be exposed in the upcoming film Shark Con.

As a filmmaker, I smell a hyper promotional campaign in full swing and while I regard the need for using verifiable or at least reasonably estimated data when it comes to shark catch numbers, I have suggested to other shark advocates to take a breath and rather than add to the hype and buzz that the producers are looking for, let's wait until the film is out so that we can better examine - and I suspect dispute - what ever fanciful conspiracy theory they are putting forth.

David Schiffman at the Southern Fried Science blog, ran a post about this issue and received some 40 responses to date. Here was my response:

For myself, as an ocean advocate but also someone who is familiar with the film/TV business, I am both concerned – when inaccuracy can be construed as incompetence or, even worse, conspiracy – and I am suspicious – as we have filmmakers here who are trying to generate buzz and sell a product.

Indeed, 100 million has always been a conveniently round number. When I speak to groups about shark conservation, I have used the range of “20 million to as high as 100 million” and then I proceed to explain the wide discrepancy as an estimate based on legal catch, illegal catch, and by-catch – questionable variables indeed and ones that many scientists and researchers do not like to work with. But even if we use the low-end numbers, given the low reproductive rate of these animals, wouldn’t that be cause enough for concern?

But nothing hurts a cause more than exaggeration. And, conversely, exaggeration is a mainstay of entertainment promotion.

So, what is the big Shark Con? A conservation movement fabricating numbers for what nefarious purpose? Shark diving operators forming some worldwide collective of small businessmen to drain divers of their hard-earned dollars? Shark-huggers hiding the fact that the populations of sharks are greater than they ever have been? Or . . . an attempt to simply exploit and capitalize on, for entertainment purposes, the lack of precision that is inherent with many environmental issues today – from shark conservation to climate change?

I suspect we are witnessing a classic public relations strategy: start a quiet dialog about shark catch discrepancies; raise the bar with indignant reactions and comments from some scientists and researchers; introduce the conspiracy angle; let the viral/rumor mill stir a bit; then start promoting the film that purports to bare it all.

We are living in a world of rumor, over-opinionated blogs and radio hosts, heated partisanship, and unfettered viral communication. Shark conservationists need to take a breath, calmly and rationally promote the cause based on the most reliable data, and rebut Shark Con only when they have made their arguments or accusations clear.

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