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Open Letter to Wall Street Journal

An open letter to Wall Street Journal writer Shibani Mahtani, in response to her article, "Experts Swim Against Shark Fin Debate"

Dear Shibani:

Your title for this piece should have been "Two Shark Fin Trade Lobbyists Swim Against the Current.”

If you have seen the movie, Thank You for Smoking, you should understand what is going on here -- or if you follow the climate change denial process.

Having known Dr. Giam for some time, I don't think he would claim to be a "marine life expert." He is a former vet who was in charge of the bureaucratic aspects of wildlife import and export in Singapore. I believe he still serves on the board of a reptile skin trading company and has served on a CITES committee where he was a tireless advocate against restrictions or controls on trade in threatened and endangered species. You would need to ask him who pays his expenses and consultancy now. Whenever I’ve asked him, he wouldn't tell.

To my knowledge, Dr. Giam has never conducted any original research on sharks of any kind nor has he visited any of the shark fisheries to which he refers. At one point, I offered for my colleague, who had done such research, to make him better informed on sharks, and his response was, "Oh no, she knows too much."

Similarly, Hank Jenkins is not a "marine life expert." I believe his expertise is in crocodile farming. He too has been a strong advocate for trade in wildlife and endangered species, such as "farming" tigers.

They are, of course, like the shark fin traders they represent, entitled to their opinions, but to suggest they are experts in sharks or marine life is misleading. 

Sharks are caught often live as bycatch in other fisheries, such as tuna, but if not for the fin value, measures to reduce shark bycatch would be far more widely employed or live sharks set free. A few species (spiny dogfish, porbeagle, mako) are targeted for their meat, but fins are by far the most valuable part of the shark and are certainly the primary target in fisheries worldwide. For example, in Costa Rica, fishermen told me they received $95 for fins and $5 for meat if they even bothered to leave room to bring it back.

We have conducted field research in more than a dozen countries and fishermen report finning and declines in size and abundance in all of them. In Indonesia, for example, there is widespread finning by local fishermen who do not wish to use their limited ice supplies for low-value shark meat. We have come across camps with the bodies of sharks dumped in the oceans. Thousands of fins were seized by Australian authorities as Indonesian fishermen had to illegally fish hundreds of miles away and because local stocks had collapsed. Marine reserves, such as the Galapagos Islands and Cocos Island, have also suffered from illegal fishing and finning. Ten thousand fins were found in one seizure alone. These sharks were finned.

Nor is it correct to say that fins sourced from Indonesia or India are from sharks where the meat is eaten by poor fishermen. Industrial longliners and trawlers operate heavily in these waters. In fact, artisanal shark fishermen in Kenya have complained to us, "my family’s protein lies at the bottom of the ocean," as industrial fishing has robbed them of their catches.

Dr Giam and traders have argued that "stopping the sale of the dish is at root a form of Sinophobia," even when the advocates are themselves Chinese, because it is an easy way of diverting attention from the real issues.  But check for yourself - activists have run major campaigns targeting "European or North American consumers who consume large quantities of bluefin tuna, caviar and other potentially ‘unsustainable’ foods." Just as they have supported unsuccessful measures to get bluefin listed.

"Dr. Giam raised this point, too, arguing that many countries such as Germany, France, Australia and Iceland have long killed sharks for their meat." And that's why all shark conservation groups supported CITES’ listing for the porbeagle and spiny dogfish - only to be blocked.

Here again is a huge myth Dr. Giam and shark fin traders are trying to popularize - that sharks are not threatened or endangered if they are not listed on CITES. 

"Sharks, he says, are not endangered – of the 400 species of the animal, only six have been considered endangered by the U.N.’s CITES."

Species listed on CITES is as much political as it is scientific or precautionary. First, you have the ‘Catch-22’ that you must have extensive data to list that is only practically available after it’s listed. Sharks are so neglected that while we have data on drastic declines in some fisheries, there is almost no data on global populations, catches or trade by species. Secondly, you have to get past the well orchestrated 1/3 filibuster led by Japan that opposes ALL marine listings on CITES. Last time this blocked bluefin, corals and a group of worthy shark proposals including those in the European meat fisheries. Hazard a guess on which side Dr. Giam and Hank Jenkins were? Another reason there is resistance to all shark listings, is that shark fins are difficult to identify by species, especially when processed, and none of the importing nations wish to have to start monitoring the trade, so whale shark, basking shark and great white can get on as they are larger and therefore easy to spot. This hasn't stopped the shark fin trade using these giant fins as adverts for shark fin soup though I'm afraid. 

Banning shark fin at the market end is not the end of shark conservation, more like a much-delayed beginning. But it is a necessary precursor to allow any other management measure a chance of success, to slow the drastic decline, reduce poaching in marine reserves and allow the rest of shark management to perhaps one day catch up with the shark’s relatively slow reproduction and ruthlessly efficient industrial fishing methods. While the sharks have such a high price on their fins, the financial incentive to subvert management measures, like marine reserves or quotas, is overwhelming and hard to police on the high seas.

We will still need fishing restrictions, CITES listing for species targeted for meat (if the blockade on CITES marine listing supported by shark fin importing countries can ever be overcome), by-catch reduction and a number of supply-side measures, but none of those may happen or will be effective in the face of the overwhelming demand, which has been explosive in line with the tremendous economic growth of China.

-Peter Knights, Executive Director, WildAid