Shark Tales: Int'l Institutions Fail Overfishing

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 3/25/2010 12:10:00 AM
In some ways, I am a reluctant environmentalist. If we lived in a world of infinite fish stocks and immediate replenishment, there would be no problem. However, I must draw the line when overfishing threatens extinction and collective action fails to do anything about it. A few days ago, I discussed how motions to limit overfishing of bluefin tuna--an increasingly affected species as the popularity of sushi and sashimi increase worldwide--failed before the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in the face of Japanese opposition in tandem with source countries like Libya. Now we receive news that another proposed measure to limit the fishing of sharks has met a similar fate due to the objections of countries led by (surprise!) Japan. And don't forget the whales as it believes "domino theory" is operative in endeavours to limit fishing.

As with the bluefin tuna objections, these measures were voted down by those with vested commercial interests. The popularity of Japanese cuisine doesn't need much elaboration here. However, some of you may be less familiar with the popularity of shark's fin soup--an expensive delicacy served in Chinese restaurants. In China and Chinese diaspora communities, shark's fin soup is a prestige dish often served during wedding banquets and other important events to indicate the graciousness of the hosts. The economic rise of East Asia has meant greater demand for shark's fin from middle class consumers. However, environmentalists have long bemoaned fishing sharks for this dish as the fins are basically cut off and the rest of the shark is discarded. Here is a description from Reuters of its rising popularity:
One of the world's most expensive food products, a bowl of shark fin soup can cost $100, with a single fin worth more than $1,300. Up to 10 million kg of shark fin is exported annually to Hong Kong by nearly 87 countries, according to Oceana, a marine conservation group. Demand for the soup has exploded in Asia, where an expanding middle class can now more easily afford a delicacy once reserved for the wealthy. Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and China are big shark fin consumers.
The net result is a noticeable decline in shark populations. Agence-France Presse has the post-mortem on how three out of four species marked for conservation have not made the grade; the only one making it is, to no one's surprise, that whose fin is not valuable:
The UN wildlife trade body slapped down a trio of proposals on Tuesday to oversee cross-border commerce for sharks threatened with extinction through overfishing, sparking anger from conservationists. The only marine species granted protection at a meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was the temperate zone porbeagle, a shark fished for its meat...

The shark species left exposed to globally unregulated commerce were the scalloped hammerhead, the oceanic white tip and the spiny dogfish. Millions of hammerhead and whitetip are extracted from seas each year, mainly to satisfy a burgeoning appetite for sharkfin soup, a prestige food in Chinese communities around the world. The US proposals were rejected by a narrow margin, opening the possibility that one or both could get a second hearing on Thursday when the 13-day conference ends.

Only decades ago, the two species were among the most common of the semi-coastal and open-water sharks. But incidental catch and demand for fins have slashed populations by 90 per cent in several regions. The fish are often tossed back into the water after their precious fins have been sliced away.

The scalloped hammerhead is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as "vulnerable" globally, while the whitetip is "critically endangered" in the north-western Atlantic, and "vulnerable" elsewhere. Once the highest level of biomass in the Gulf of Mexico, the whitetip is 99 per cent depleted there today, marine biologist Julia Baum said.

Japan led opposition to the four measures, arguing that management of shark populations should be left to regional fisheries groups, not CITES. Conservationists counter that fishing for sharks is unregulated. "The problem today is not there is serious mismanagement of trade in sharks, as for tuna, but that there is no management at all," said Sue Lieberman, policy director for the Washington-based Pew Environment Group.

The proposals called for listing on CITES' Appendix II, which requires countries to monitor exports and demonstrate that fishing is done in a sustainable manner. The scientific panel of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recommend protection for all the species except the spiny dogfish which, along with the porbeagle, was also voted down at the last CITES meeting in 2007...
And if you haven't figured out the arch-villain yet -
Many NGOs said that intensive lobbying by Japan played a critical role in the measures being shot down. "We see clearly now the Japanese motivation for opposing all these marine species proposals," said Anne Schroeer, a Madrid-based economist with Oceana. "For the whales, they say we are catching it traditionally. For the bluefin tuna, they say we are eating it. But for the sharks, there is nothing but pure economic interest." All told, a third of the world's 64 species of pelagic, or open water, sharks face extinction, according to a report issued last June by the IUCN's Shark Specialist Group.
It is all quite sad, really. While Japan always says it is interested in conservation, it always leads movements to thwart efforts designed to prevent overfishing. It's not very self-enlightened, methinks, and will ultimately backfire in the long run as doing nothing and fishing these species to extinction or near-extinction is a solution acceptable only to the Bjorn Lomborg set.

The issue here comes down to one familiar with limiting trade in controlled substances--reducing demand. Consuming and producing nations will, in the final analysis, go for their interests. Fortunately, there are recent efforts such as Shark Savers and WildAid's ongoing high-profile campaign in China to increase consumer education about the hazards associated with overfishing:
During 2007-08, WildAid developed and expanded its work to reduce demand for shark products, primarily in China. This campaign included television and billboard campaigns featuring leading Olympic stars pledged not to eat shark fin soup. The advertising featured the main stars of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, Yao Ming, who carried the Chinese flag for the Chinese team, Li Ning, who lit the giant torch and musician Liu Huan, who sang the official theme song of the 2008 Olympics.

In 2009, WildAid and Shark Savers have come together to amplify the impact of this awareness and education campaign in China to reduce consumption of shark fin soup. This campaign will utilize cultural, athletic, and business heroes of China, including basketball legend Yao Ming, to deliver a message proven to make shark fin soup socially unacceptable...

We, at Shark Savers, are very excited to be working with WildAid on this campaign. No where in the world can we affect as big a change in shark consumption habits than in China. We think that, together, we have the right skills, message, and elements to 'close the sale' with the Chinese public. It is an urgent time as shark populations continue to dwindle, but we think that there are signs of real hope. With the athletic and cultural heroes and prominent businessmen that are coming together for this cause, and the already-proven message, we think we may be at a tipping point in China on the issue of shark fin soup.
You can say that marketing led us into this mess, so (social) marketing should help lead us out of it. Ultimately, there is nothing culturally ingrained about having to consume this dish and there are substitutes for it using similar recipes. There is still a chance of limits being placed before CITES wraps up later today, but if not, curbing appetite for the dish is really the way to go in the absence of collective action.

And no, I don't eat shark's fin soup.