Because Jaws is oh so 1975/ Happy Birthday, Mom— I love you!

No, I haven’t been hospitalized with Hep C, or died from piercing-induced septicaemia— although either of those would make for a good excuse as well as an amusing obit. I’ve just been rather busy with my thesis, so writing for pleasure has been non-existant these last few weeks. And yet, before I launch into my main topic for this post, I just want to mention a recent study led by my supervisor and including the work of several of my fisheries colleagues at UBC. The methodology they used was pretty much the same as described in my Sherlock Holmes post, and the ultimate findings of their research suggest that China under-reports its foreign catch by over 90%. If you would like to read a bit more about the real-world implications of these inaccuracies, and how the theoretical concept of catch reconstructing actually translates into applicable knowledge, give this article a go. (Hopefully I will be able to share my own published catch reconstruction in a couple of months, but that’ll all depend on the review process and whether or not it gets accepted right away.)

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Anyway, now to the topic that I’ve been meaning to write for about a month…

Today, upon google image searching “baby armadillo“, I learned very quickly why CITES exists. These little guys are pretty much the most adorable creatures on Earth and I would own one in a heartbeat. For about six months until it got bigger, and ugly, and I felt obligated to donate it to some exotic zoo. Anyway, armadillos aside, I hope that some of my non-science friends who read this will have at least heard about CITES. And, in particular, the recent meeting (and shark listing!) in Bangkok. In fact, I’d really like feedback if you have. But, just in case this is all new and exciting to you, I’ve decided to touch on this organization, its role in conservation, and what this listing actually means for the sharks.

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What is CITES? (i.e., A summary of their goals and activities in a few brief paragraphs with information stolen borrowed from their website.)

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES; “sigh-tees”) is a voluntary, inter-governmental agreement that aims to monitor and restrict the global trade of endangered species* (both terrestrial and aquatic) to ensure that the long-term survival of these species is not threatened. Originally drafted by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), CITES was formed in 1973 and, at present, has 177 participating countries (or ‘Parties’) and, “accords varying degrees of protection to more than 30,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats or dried herbs.”

Every few years, a Conference of the Parties (COP) is held, whereby member countries vote on whether they believe certain species should be listed under CITES. (Well, it’s a good deal more complicated and political than that, but that’s the general idea…) Thus CITES works by placing a species under one of three possible Appendices and monitoring all trade of the listed species thereafter. These are the appendices:

Appendix I: threatened with extinction (e.g., blue whale, white rhino, jaguar); trade permitted only in exceptional circumstances (e.g., some scientific research, captive breeding programs);

Appendix II: not necessarily directly threatened with extinction (e.g., African manatee, king cobra, seahorses) but where controlled trade is believed to be necessary to prevent over- or mis-utilization that is incompatible with its survival;

Appendix III: protected in at least one country (e.g. brown sea cucumber in Ecuador); other Parties assist this country with controlling/ limiting its trade.

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Is CITES effective?

Loaded question. And one that I’m sure could constitute an entire university course, so I’ll try to give a Reader’s Digest version. Ultimately, for many big terrestrial species, yes I think it is. Up until the last decade or so, CITES has been focused largely on what many scientists and conservationists affectionately (or sometimes tongue-in-cheekly) refer to as “charismatic megafauna”. These are rhinos, elephants, tigers, Amazonian butterflies, humpback whales… Or, for the general public: basically anything that is big, or pretty, or worthy of posting as one’s facebook cover photo. And they also deal with lots of plants that are threatened with deforestation for agricultural and urban development, or because of their importance as traditional herbal remedies in certain cultures.

The inclusion of  marine species of commercial importance only began in 2002 when seahorses were included in Appendix II. This was a pretty monumental achievement because (in my opinion) it initiated some sincere public awareness in both fishing and environmental threats to our oceans, and the importance of marine conservation. (For more on this, check out the valuable work that continues to be accomplished by the Project Seahorse research group here at the Fisheries Centre.)

Prior to this most recent CITES meeting, proposals to list other fish species have been pretty unsuccessful despite serious concerns over their population status (e.g., bluefin tuna was not accepted in 2010). There are undoubtedly many reasons for this. However, I primarily believe that since fish are valuable in a much different way than species like African teak or Siberian tigers, it’s much more difficult to get them listed. While some of the wealthier people on our planet may think that rare woods make for the prettiest carvings, and animal skins make for the softest rugs, no one is ever going to eat a teak salad, or have a tiger sandwich for lunch. Thus the demand for these items comes from a much different (and arguably less global) market than the one for fish. As mentioned in this article, “seafood is the most traded food commodity internationally, and fish and shellfish exports from developing countries exceed the value of coffee, rubber, cocoa, tea, tobacco, meat and rice combined.” Top that off with the fact that a lot of large marine animals (e.g., sharks, tuna) are highly mobile (i.e., they travel through national and international waters), difficult to assess and monitor, are not always as cute as a panda, and you end up with a bit of a conservation nightmare.

panda bluefin

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Sharks take centre stage at CITES 2013 (March 3-14 in Bangkok, Thailand)

I have at times wondered what society’s attitude toward monotremes would be had Peter Benchley written a novel about a man-eating platypus. No? Too far-fetched? OK, well what about something more realistic then? Like a leopard, a grizzly bear, or a wolf? Why did he choose a shark when many other animals are also known to attack humans, sometimes even anthropomorphized to a level that suggests they do so out of hatred or vengeance? If he had made an orca— essentially a marine creature that occupies the same ecological role as a great white— his blood-thirsty antagonist, would we have come to hate these whales? Or does the fact that they surface to breathe, nurse their young, and live in large families automatically exclude them from being perceived as deadly to humans? Last year I watched a brief clip about Mr. Benchley, in which he discussed his current thoughts on Jaws and the impact it has had on sharks over the last few decades. I encourage you to take a minute to watch it too:

I won’t go into my views on mutilating a creature such that it is permanently immobilized before being chucked overboard, still alive, to drown in the only environment it has ever known. Instead, I suggest you watch Sharkwater if you don’t already understand the barbarity of such an action. At any rate, the simple truth is that humans are killing millions of sharks each year and China’s appetite for tasteless sharkfin soup is driving their populations to extirpation. And, since Jaws didn’t do much for our opinion of sharks, society has thus far seemed a tad less concerned about these guys than we have about giant pandas or blue whales. But, this attitude is changing a little. Maybe it’s ironic, but in 2004 the great white was actually one of the first sharks to ever be listed on CITES Appendix II. However, despite some attempts since, no other sharks had been successfully listed for international trade protection until last month.

At CITES COP16, three hammerheads (scalloped, great, and smooth), the porbeagle, and the oceanic whitetip were all included in Appendix II. (Both manta ray species were also included, as you can read in the jargon-laden press release.) And, while I have so far felt that anit-shark finning legislation has thus far been a bunch of bureaucratic bullshit, CITES might actually be the catalyst required for better enforcement both on and off the water.

finless_hammerhead

If the average person knows nothing about the endangered status of a species, then I don’t think they are at fault for consuming or using products associated with that species. And I think this is the major problem associated with sharks and sharkfin soup in Asia. In talking with some colleagues on this issue, most of us acknowledge that the physical act of restricting trade of these species won’t actually save the sharks. If there’s a will, there will always be a way, and therefore underground markets will always exist. However, what this listing does have the power to do is raise awareness within the general public and demonstrate that sharks are in just as much risk of extinction as some of the more charismatic magafauna species. As a complete antithesis to how scientists see only a few species being listed, I’ve found that society as a whole often thinks of sharks as a collective entity. And while this can be very frustrating in one sense (e.g., a leopard shark is not remotely threatening to people, yet because it is a “shark” many would think it is just as scary as a tiger shark), in the case of conservation, I think it might actually be rather beneficial. As far as I know, species distinction in sharkfin soup is not made, so if people begin to see eating (generic) “shark” as a negative (i.e., on par with owning alligator skin boots or wearing a wolf fur coat), then they may start to consume it less. And, decreased demand will result in decreased supply and by next summer we’ll be back to pre-industrial numbers of sharks!

OK…maybe not. I know nothing will ever be perfect— not even close— but I do believe that if this outcome causes even a little more public awareness about sharks and illegal shark fishing, then that’s a huge step in the right direction for society. And for the sharks.

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*Just because it’s a personal pet peeve of mine, here is a brief (slightly patronizing) grammatical rant on species. The term species is used to denote both multiple species (e.g., we saw ten species of fish on our dive), and a single species (e.g., the ocelot is a species of cat that lives in South America). There is no such thing as a specie. Nor do specieses exist. It’s simply, species. Always.

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