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Why saving sharks is good business

by Steve Trent, President, WildAid

“The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment” Gaylord Nelson, Environmentalist, former United States Senator and State Governor

Wildlife conservation is good business. It provides employment, income and a basis for development in countless unseen ways, many of which remain poorly understood or unrecognized by businesses globally. Moreover, the latest scientific studies spell out, very clearly, the importance of effective species conservation in building an economically sustainable architecture for our development into the future. Equally the same science is able to explain how we will ignore this fact at our peril. Never has the time for engaging businesses in species conservation been more necessary and appropriate.

And this is not the simply the judgment of a professional conservationist, it is a view shared by an increasing number of political, business, economic and scientific leaders. In a recent report on the economic value of biodiversity produced by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, writes:

“Biodiversity underpins the functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend for food and fresh water, health and recreation, and protection from natural disasters. Current trends are bringing us closer to a number of potential tipping points that would catastrophically reduce the capacity of ecosystems to provide these essential services. The poor, who tend to be most immediately dependent on them, would suffer first and most severely. At stake are the principal objectives outlined in the Millennium Development Goals: food security, poverty eradication and a healthier population”.

Studies already make clear the huge economic losses resulting from our collective failure to better manage and conserve our biodiversity. To give just one example, annual economic losses as a result of deforestation and forest degradation alone, may equate to more than US$4.5 trillion. Whereas an annual investment into key areas of biodiversity of just US$45 billion would secure ecosystem services worth $5 trillion: more than a 100 to 1 return.

Surely good business by anyone’s definition.

Full, active buy-in and participation is needed from the business community in communicating the value of our wildlife and bridging the gulf between reality and understanding, particularly as it relates to our long-term economic well-being. And with this, a corresponding shift in business practices designed to minimize impact on wildlife and actively support the conservation of species is needed. Arguably nowhere are these needs greater than in China.

China is the world’s single largest consumer of wildlife products and the already unsustainable Chinese market is growing exponentially. Current projections suggest that around 250 million new “middle class” consumers will enter the Chinese market over the next ten to fifteen years. The combination of old customs and traditions (culinary, medicinal, cultural) with new money, conspicuous consumption and powerful new aspirations are driving an explosion in the use of wildlife parts and products in China.

A crucial example of the explosion in wildlife consumption is that of shark fin soup, served throughout China at weddings; to show respect at business meetings and increasingly as a more commonplace exhibition of wealth and status.

The rapid increase in market demand has resulted in sharks being targeted just for their fins, a practice called ‘finning’. Highly wasteful, the shark fins are cut off and the vast bulk of the shark, as much as 98%, is commonly thrown back in to the water, dead or dying, as it has little remaining commercial value. Crucially, illegal incursions into Marine Protected Areas across the world, specifically for fining, are increasing.

Approximately 79 million sharks are killed each year to meet the increasing demand for shark fin soup; equivalent to 1.73 million tons of shark. The actual catch however is almost certainly far greater as further shark mortality occurs when boats are fishing for other species and sharks are caught as by-catch.

Shark finning and the impact of by-catch have contributed to collapsed populations of up to 99%. We now know that 20% of all shark species and more than 50% of pelagic sharks are threatened with extinction. Of the more than 500 known species of shark only 3 are protected in the majority of countries in which they are found. And China’s mounting consumption of shark fin is causing the greatest concern for shark conservation globally.

So, why does this matter? Why should anyone care about sharks? The answer is that it makes ecological and economic sense. Most sharks are the top predator of the ecosystems they live in and play a key role in maintaining the ecological security of our seas and oceans, thereby supporting our own economic well-being. We know from past experience that when you remove a keystone species, like a shark, it can lead to cascading species loss through the ecosystem. In the northwest Atlantic, the fishing out of larger sharks resulted in an explosion in numbers of smaller species which the larger animals had predated on, these in turn predated on shellfish that formed a very valuable fishery.

The net result from the loss of the sharks was the collapse of the shellfish fishery. To make the direct link: the massive increase in the consumption of shark fin soup in China is having a devastating effect on global shark populations and almost certainly impacting commercial fisheries as well as fisheries providing food security for poorer communities. If we try to understand what may be happening at a broader level we should note that the world’s fisheries employ approximately 200 million people, provide about 16% of the protein consumed worldwide and have a value estimated at US$ 82 billion.

We need combined action by governments, businesses and individuals to protect sharks. Starting by reducing consumption of shark fin and explaining the true value of these remarkable living dinosaurs which have thrived for over 400 million years and which may now be wiped out within one generation. What can business do?

Easily and most urgently, explain the challenge to its workforce and engage a company-wide policy prohibiting the consumption of shark fin soup – this would have a massive impact if enough businesses were to take such responsible action.

WildAid is perhaps the leading conservation organization working in China to help achieve these important goals. As part of our work we have conducted extensive research across Asia and found that, in Hong Kong and Taiwan:

• For 56% of people the reason for eating shark fin soup was social habit

• 46% of people said they would eat it regardless of price

• 45% said they would not eat it if they knew the shark was finned alive, its body discarded or that sharks were threatened by the trade

• 65% thought that sharks were important to the balance of marine life

• In Taiwan prior to WildAid’s campaign, only 43% knew shark fin soup was made from shark (the local name is “fish fin soup”) and 13% believed that the fins grew back

Clearly we need to inform, educate and encourage action. While general awareness of conservation issues in China remains limited, an interest within government, media and urban audiences is fast developing. Environmental concern is being encouraged at many levels - over the past decade the government has acted to bring in a raft of legislation covering a wide range of conservation issues. But we do not have the luxury of time for sharks. Without the active support of businesses many shark species will become extinct resulting in one of the greatest conservation losses of the next decade and bringing numerous unaccounted other costs.

Addressing consumer demand has long been ignored and perhaps viewed as outside the expertise of conventional conservation organizations, but any coherent portfolio of actions to address this problem must include demand reduction plans. WildAid has developed a unique, integrated model to address demand for shark fin in China and build collaboration across all sections of Chinese society. Working with government, business, media partners and celebrities, WildAid has successfully encouraged attitudinal and behavioral change to reduce demand for species such as shark.

Our campaign delivery uses top stars from the movie, sports and music world as spokespeople – Chinese basketball star Yao Ming is our international ambassador. We have engaged a unique network of media partners enabling us to reach 1 billion people each week with high-impact messaging. China has a hugely important opportunity here – to take a global conservation leadership role and eliminate unsustainable wildlife consumption. A simple reduction in the consumption of shark fin soup will achieve a dramatic and permanent shift in the global demand for unsustainable wildlife products. WildAid believes in China’s ability to take on this role and become the world’s leader for wildlife. But, like every country in the world, it will need the help of its business leaders.