Sol­i­dar­ity with the sharks

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

A re­cent study found that fish­ing catches have been sub­stan­tially un­der­es­ti­mated for years. This should grab the at­ten­tion of both re­gional fish­eries man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions, which over­see com­mer­cial fish­ing in the high seas, and those mon­i­tor­ing com­pli­ance with the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Con­ser­va­tion of Mi­gra­tory Species of Wild An­i­mals (CMS), which cov­ers en­dan­gered mi­gra­tory species.

Ac­cord­ing to the CMS, the species de­mand­ing the strictest pro­tec­tion to­day – listed in Ap­pen­dix I – in­clude great white sharks, five species of saw­fish, and eleven species of ray. The CMS meet­ings on mi­gra­tory sharks, set to take place this month in San Jose, Costa Rica, rep­re­sent an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity for ad­vanc­ing reg­u­la­tions to en­sure the con­ser­va­tion and sus­tain­able use of th­ese species, so that they can con­tinue to ful­fill their crit­i­cal eco­log­i­cal role as apex preda­tors.

At their last con­fer­ence, held in Quito, Ecuador, in 2014, the CMS par­ties added sev­eral shark species, the pro­tec­tion of which gov­ern­ments are en­cour­aged to se­cure through the ne­go­ti­a­tion of in­ter­na­tional agree­ments. One such agree­ment, reached in 2010 and so far signed by 39 par­ties, is the Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing on the Con­ser­va­tion of Mi­gra­tory Sharks.

De­spite be­ing legally non-bind­ing, the ini­tia­tive pro­vides an im­por­tant fo­rum to reach agree­ment on poli­cies en­sur­ing that any ex­ploita­tion of mi­gra­tory shark pop­u­la­tions is sus­tain­able.

But, as the re­cent study on fish­ing catches un­der­scores, we of­ten lack the ac­cu­rate data needed to de­ter­mine what level of con­sump­tion is sus­tain­able. With­out it, the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple – if in doubt, don’t do it – should be ap­plied. The prob­lem is that the ab­sence of re­li­able data can make the need to pro­tect a species seem more ab­stract and less ur­gent, weak­en­ing gov­ern­ments’ ca­pac­ity to re­sist other, more im­me­di­ate de­mands, es­pe­cially the need to pro­tect rel­e­vant liveli­hoods.

In the mean­time, con­sump­tion of the oceans’ re­sources con­tin­ues to surge.

Over the last two gen­er­a­tions, as the world pop­u­la­tion has dou­bled to 7.3 bil­lion, the amount of fish taken from the oceans each year has grown even faster, from 20 mil­lion met­ric tons in 1950 to 77 mil­lion in 2010. And th­ese are only the of­fi­cial fig­ures, which do not ac­count for il­le­gal, un­reg­u­lated, and un­re­ported catches.

Given that sharks are a com­mer­cially valu­able sec­ondary catch of fish­eries (usu­ally those tar­get­ing tuna), re­gional fish­eries man­age­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions tend not to elab­o­rate spe­cific reg­u­la­tions for them. It is thus eas­ier for sharks to slip through the gaps in in­ter­na­tional law than to elude fish­er­men’s nets – es­pe­cially the mas­sive spe­cialised nets that fish­eries em­ploy nowa­days.

In­deed, un­like the ar­ti­sanal fish­er­man of the past, fac­tory ships and mod­ern tech­nolo­gies have en­abled the mas­sive scal­ing up of catches to sat­isfy de­mand not only lo­cally, but in dis­tant mar­kets as well. Given this, the ad­di­tion of so many species to the en­dan­gered list in re­cent years should come as no sur­prise.

In this chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment, ini­tia­tives like the Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing be­come even more cru­cial as a means of en­cour­ag­ing (of­ten re­gion-spe­cific) ac­tion. Some sig­na­to­ries, in­clud­ing cer­tain Pa­cific is­land states, have de­clared their huge ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zones to be shark sanc­tu­ar­ies and have es­tab­lished ar­eas where all fish­ing is pro­hib­ited. For their part, Aus­tralia, New Zealand, and the United States have cre­ated ob­server schemes and sys­tems to as­sess and man­age fish stocks.

Fur­ther­more, in re­sponse to the out­cry at the waste­ful prac­tice of shark finning, the Euro­pean Union now re­quires that all sharks are landed in­tact, thereby pre­vent­ing the re­moval of fins from sharks at sea and the dis­posal over­board of their less valu­able bod­ies.

This has been re­in­forced by the Chi­nese govern­ment’s pledge not to serve shark fin soup, con­sid­ered a del­i­cacy, at of­fi­cial ban­quets. Even freight com­pa­nies and air­lines have been spurred to act, with a grow­ing num­ber now re­fus­ing to trans­port shark fins.

While such progress should be ap­plauded, there is a long way to go. For ex­am­ple, ef­forts must be made to ad­dress by­catch (the trap­ping of sharks in nets in­tended for other fish, es­pe­cially tuna). The key is for all in­ter­ested par­ties – from fish­er­man and con­ser­va­tion­ists to gov­ern­ments and in­ter­na­tional fo­rums – to work to­gether through the Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing and sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives.

The ad­verse eco­nomic im­pact im­plied by such ef­forts is not nearly as large as one might ex­pect; in many cases, it could be more than off­set by other kinds of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties that take ad­van­tage of live sharks. The thriv­ing eco­tourism op­er­a­tions in the Mal­dives, Kenya, South Africa, Fiji, and some Cen­tral Amer­i­can and Caribbean coun­tries are a case in point. As a tourist draw, seen at close quar­ters in its nat­u­ral habi­tat, a manta ray can be worth thou­sands of dol­lars; dead on a slab at the quay­side, its flesh and gills fetch a frac­tion of that.

The short-term think­ing that im­pedes en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion ef­forts to­day could prove dev­as­tat­ing; in­deed, to some ex­tent, it al­ready has. If we con­tinue to de­plete crit­i­cal ecosys­tems, they will soon be­come un­able to re­gen­er­ate. Only with a con­certed, co­op­er­a­tive, and ur­gent ef­fort to pre­serve marine ecosys­tems and pro­tect the liveli­hoods of those who de­pend on them will the oceans be able to con­tinue to feed – and fas­ci­nate – the world for gen­er­a­tions to come.

It has long been said that we know more about the Moon than we do about the oceans. Af­ter all, 12 peo­ple have walked on the sur­face of the Moon, but only three have been to the deep­est part of the sea. But it now seems that we know even less about the oceans than we thought – and we may well have been do­ing even more dam­age than we re­alised.

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