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A big bite for conservation

Richard Black | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010


Sharks with diver

Overall, you'd have to conclude that 2010 was a better year than most for sharks.

Just before the Christmas season began, both houses of the UN Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which basically aims to end the practice of shark finning in US waters by making it illegal.

Conservation groups have been pressing all major fishing nations and blocs to do this.

Otherwise, what tends to happen is that dorsal fins are removed and their former owners left to bleed to death in the open sea - essentially a useless death, killing an entire animal in order to sell one small part comprising a few percent of its weight.

The EU recently showed signs of moving in the same direction, with the European Parliament endorsing a resolution calling for a shark-finning ban.

Meanwhile, the annual meeting of a body that has been a byword for "dysfunctional" in the marine environment, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), agreed measures to protect oceanic white-tip, hammerhead and mako sharks to varying degrees - albeit rejecting other proposals, including a finning ban.

With the whole of the environmental landscape (and seascape) to choose from, you might wonder why I picked sharks for a final reflection of 2010.

One reason is that pressure of time and other things meant the three instances above did not get adequately reflected here on the BBC website - like many other things I would have liked to report over the year, but that were ultimately squeezed out of the mix.

A much more important reason is that in a sense, sharks encapsulate many of the factors at play when decisions have to be made on issues with a strong environmental component.

Shark fins in sack

A shark finning ban is in the bag for the US... but not, yet, everywhere else

Scientifically, we have a rough idea of the scale of the problem - although records are not as thorough, nor do they go back as far, as you might like.

We also understand to a fair degree the importance of sharks in the overall marine ecosystem.

And we know enough of their biology to deduce that they're particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure.

The animals are valued by people, but in very different ways - as functioning fish by divers, as providers of fins by fishermen.

Yet they are also unintentially side-swiped, through being caught accidentally on fishing hooks set for other species.

And in some quarters they are abhorred - as noted by events in Egypt, where tourists have recently been attacked, and where environmental groups have accused the authorities of needlessly killing sharks in a misguided response.

Plotting their future course is difficult, as no-one knows the future impact of climate change on ocean ecosystems, nor how future generations will choose to regulate fishing.

So we see how policymakers respond to this miasma of uncertainties and mixed interests... as we do on the much more convoluted issues of global biodiversity and climate change.

On those two big themes - both of which came through seminal moments this year, from ClimateGate to Nagoya to Cancun - the concept of global policymaking emerged in ruder health than many would have suspected at the beginning of the year.

I went through issues raised in Cancun in my previous post, so I won't go over that ground again - except to note in response to your comments, JackHughes and Spanglerboy, that of course I'm still seriously writing about global warming - do you seriously think that doing otherwise is an option, given the importance of the issue?

But the issues raised on biodiversity through the year, at the UN summit in Nagoya and elsewhere, are equally profound; and sharks are an exemplar par excellence of just why they are profoundly challenging.

The New Year is relatively devoid of set-pieces; but we will see governments and people who would influence governments putting together packages of options that will, in various mixtures, attempt to reconcile science with policy on these very big, complex and pressured issues.

You can see the progress on sharks as an indication that when governments are persuaded that an environmental issue really matters, they can and sometimes will deal with it effectively.

Equally, you could deduce that getting them to this stage can be as tough as trying to herd a shoal of great whites with a spoon.

We'll see how they get on.

In the meantime, best wishes to you all for a very happy beginning to 2011.

And if you'd like something to raise a smile as we make the transition, have a look at this climate change sketch from the UK's Armstrong and Miller show... made me laugh, at any rate.


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  • 1. At 4:29pm on 31 Dec 2010, devionion wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 2. At 7:47pm on 31 Dec 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    Hi, Richard, I thought it would be after New Year! Have a good one!
    Yes, I was among the gang that fought for the whole shark and nothing but the shark.
    Actually, I think all we will get is the removal of the carcass as well as the fins; no reduction in shark deaths but with shark-nutrient recycled through pet food tins rather than directly back into the ocean.
    Your focus on accidental entrapment in nets/lines set for other species begs a question close to my heart, here in Bahia. The Tamar Project based at Praia de Forte records, plots, conserves, and protects through education Atlantic populations of at least four turtle species.
    Whilst we are protecting sharks from entanglement & death, should we not be doing the same for the turtles?
    My evening is 'made' every time a giant turtle head surfaces in the surf-swash between me and my terminal tackle out there on the reef. Christmas & the New Year temps in the 30s - who needs global warming! ;0)
    See you in the New Year,

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  • 3. At 00:44am on 01 Jan 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    Happy New Year Richard!

    Hope your perpetual doom and gloom doesn't keep you from enjoying it.

    Geoff in Brazil - I envy you. Outside my window it is about 50 C colder than where you are. That's on the cool side of normal. And most of the sharks around here wear suits.

    Happy New year to you too!

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  • 4. At 2:57pm on 01 Jan 2011, Maria Ashot wrote:

    Happy 2011, Richard: let's hope for the best, and thanks! Delightful sketch!

    Sparing a thought for the sharks, and Biodiversity generally speaking: there is a very simple & straightforward argument to be made for the fact that all life forms present are by definition necessary for the maintenance of the system (if not for its adornment, which to my mind would be an equally valid claim, albeit less "scientific"). Ergo, the less we overmanage them -- the less we tamper with natural balances, for example by resorting to forms of resource exploitation which are inherently wasteful, speculative & ultimately overzealous -- the better.

    Observation has demonstrated sufficiently clearly since the dawn of scientific reasoning howevermany millenia ago that all elements of the biosphere serve some kind of purpose. All organisms in an ecosystem contribute. Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" (seminal, in some ways, amongst studies accessible to the average non-specialist from the past decade), in its magnificent opening section on grasslands, should provide sufficient fodder (pun intended) for those who doubt...

    And so it seems in fact almost wasteful to have to expend tremendous resources to prove -- Scientifically -- what has been known for ages, what is self-evident, what is in fact a Common Sense precept:

    Respect all forms of life and only destroy the minimum you truly must to satisfy your own survival needs. Survival, not Enrichment, not Profit Margin should be the yardstick that dictates how many living creatures are slaughtered in the interest of sustaining the human population -- which in and of itself of course also should regulate, voluntarily, its rate of growth, especially considering increases in life expectancy which are in fact a welcome development -- healthy older humans tend to be somewhat more prudent and, as such, valuable members of the greater living system that is Earth herself.

    And so let us also recognise that ultimately the defence of Biodiversity should be construed as also precluding such wild outbursts as the bloodcurdling calls for public beheadings of "royals" that recently rent the London air, or rationalisations for "class warfare" as the inevitable driving force of History & Progress, or even the occasional attempt to find a way of excusing genocide -- or genocidal campaigns from the past.

    Those who claim they are defending Biodiversity should hold themselves to a higher standard, then -- just as vegetarians and vegans or abstemious monastics do. As charming as it might sound to certain ears, "Eat the bankers" is not a slogan that should be promulgated by anyone.

    We all actually need each other to manage this accelerating threat. And that means everyone. We can't have a complete die-off of marine life without also ending much of human life. We can't allow certain plant species to be clear-cut into oblivion without also compromising our own access to potable water and sustainable farming.

    If one is a committed Darwinist, then of course one cannot possibly regard the destruction of species through barbaric practices as an acceptable part of the natural dynamic. We do not capture sharks and strip them of whatever we crave with our bare hands and teeth, the way other predators do in the wild.

    And if one adheres to any of the great religious schools of thought, in all of which ultimate accountability for actions figures prominently, then there is no excuse whatsoever for placing miniscule monetary advantage above the obligation to partake of what is allowed for the purpose of sustaining one's own health and one's family's with moderation, maximum care, and minimal suffering for the life forms being destroyed in the process.

    In other words, there is simply no excuse whatsoever for the brutality that pervades human enterprise, and has now reached a level where it threatens the very survival of humanity as a species for whom this planet can continue to extend its hospitality.

    Most emphatically, those scientists and institutes that are -- legitimately -- concerned about accelerating climate change ought to set an example by moving away from the practice of interminably studying what has already been proven or (as suggested above) is quite self-evident. Because these lavishly funded studies themselves also perpetuate a waste of resources best spent developing mitigation strategies.

    It shouldn't take three conferences to end the practice of killing sharks for their fins. There will always be criminals, and poachers, but it should simply be enough to say: Enough Already. And to educate consumers not to pay for this "delicacy" any more than they would for rhino horn or the skin of a tiger.

    Will it work? Probably not very quickly, but chipping away at the consciousness of consumers does turn the tide. It took a generation to achieve great reductions in tobacco consumption in the States, but it did happen.

    And shark fin soup is much less addictive than cigarettes.

    As for the prospects of a universal global policy and enforceable doctrines: Kyoto made us all hope. I hoped. I still hope. But time is very much running out. Some of us have been aware of the permafrost problem a full decade or two before it made headlines some weeks ago... What shocked me was discovering the IPCC had not factored permafrost degradation into its original calculations...

    The Bolivians may seem quixotic in their refusal to accept what is insufficient in the Cancun documents, but there is honour (very much so) in at least one nation having pointed out that we are, indeed, doomed, unless we act quickly and make it a true priority, household by household, to reduce emissions.

    What any of us can do, should do, even right now, is to begin as much as possible to minimize our use of personal automobiles, or to replace our existing vehicles with much less petrol-dependent conveyances. If enough drivers around the world made that choice -- especially in countries such as India, Russia, China, Brazil, where petrol-wasting luxury brands are still very much en vogue amongst the newly affluent -- it actually would make a difference.

    So, since the clock has pretty much expired on enforceable global unanimity, let's go vigorously after the next best thing: concerted, enlightened, resolute action, by as many of us as have the courage & spirit to act.

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  • 5. At 4:47pm on 01 Jan 2011, Dave1965 wrote:

    "both houses of the UN Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act"

    Presumably this should read "US" rather than "UN".

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  • 6. At 5:33pm on 01 Jan 2011, bowmanthebard wrote:

    Maria Ashot #4 wrote:

    there is a very simple & straightforward argument to be made for the fact that all life forms present are by definition necessary for the maintenance of the system

    If there is such as argument, why not provide it?

    In the meantime, I trust you are mourning the destruction of "the system" brought about by the extinction of smallpox.

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  • 7. At 6:47pm on 01 Jan 2011, GeoffWard wrote:

    Hi Mary @ #4, a good thoughtful New Year posting.
    Our roads in Brasil are TERRIBLE - no sub-structure, tarmac laid straight onto sand, HUGE potholes and wash-outs/subsidences/land-slips. The car characteristics needed here (and probably across all BRICS) are not 'executive' features per se, but high-ground-clearence and the ability to travel vast distances in comfort. Air travel is the norm between states as there is no rail network, but intra-state journeys between towns may be 10 hours or more on the road; comfort on company business travel (typically Ford, Vale, Petrobras) comes as part of the package.
    Regards, Geoff.

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  • 8. At 05:48am on 02 Jan 2011, Shadorne wrote:

    Does this mean that Catastrophic Man-made Global Warming has "jumped the shark"?

    The defining moment when you know that the media's favorite end-of-the-world scare story has reached its peak.

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  • 9. At 10:11am on 02 Jan 2011, JunkkMale wrote:

    5. At 4:47pm on 01 Jan 2011, Dave1965 wrote:
    Presumably this should read "US" rather than "UN".

    Indeed. One also presumes in terms of accurate reflection on BBC websites this clarification still remaining uncorrected means few internally read these posts and replies much.

    Darn cuts. Hope this observation doesn't mean a pulling before double digits.

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  • 10. At 11:43am on 02 Jan 2011, Brunnen wrote:

    #9. JunkkMale wrote:

    Darn cuts. Hope this observation doesn't mean a pulling before double digits.


    Nah, they only do that to Richard's blogs when we stop singing from the hymnsheet.

    And It's only Richard's blogs where one can find an entry shut down after 28 comments. Paul Hudson doesn't do it, other BBC bloggers don't do it, it only happens here.

    Not good enough.

    "With the whole of the environmental landscape (and seascape) to choose from, you might wonder why I picked sharks for a final reflection of 2010.

    One reason is that pressure of time and other things meant the three instances above did not get adequately reflected here on the BBC website - like many other things I would have liked to report over the year, but that were ultimately squeezed out of the mix."

    Maybe if you hadn't spent so much time on AGW you would have found time in your busy shcedule.

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  • 11. At 11:47am on 02 Jan 2011, Brunnen wrote:

    "I went through issues raised in Cancun in my previous post"

    Lucky you. The rest of us barely got a chance to read your post let alone comment on it before it was locked down.

    Care to explain why?

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  • 12. At 11:55am on 02 Jan 2011, Vic Smith wrote:

    Richard Black: "no-one knows the future impact of climate change on ocean ecosystems"

    Well done. We seem to have turned the corner. Goodbye to all of that unjustified certainty.

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  • 13. At 1:41pm on 02 Jan 2011, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    Happy New Year to Richard and all
    I liked the sketch and many a true word spoken in jest.

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  • 14. At 4:12pm on 02 Jan 2011, BluesBerry wrote:

    Thank-you for writing about these bites for conservations, especially re the cruel definning of sharks.
    Thank-you for mentioning: the UN Summit in NAGOYA, Japan, but you failed to mention the most important conservation decision that was reached at the UN summit.
    In a landmark consensus decision, the 193-member UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) closed its tenth biennial meeting with a de facto moratorium on geo-engineering projects and experiments:
    Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American Director of ETC Group: “Any private or public experimentation or adventurism intended to manipulate the planetary thermostat will be in violation of this carefully crafted UN consensus.
    The agreement, reached during the ministerial portion of the two-week meeting included 110 environment ministers. Governments were asked to ensure that no geo-engineering activities take place until the risks to the environment, biodiversity & associated social, cultural & economic impacts have been carefully considered.
    The unusually strong consensus came on the heels of the 2008 moratorium on ocean fertilization. That agreement put the brakes on a litany of failed “experiments” – both public and private – to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in the oceans’ by spreading nutrients on the sea surface.
    Since then, attention has turned to a range of fantastic, futuristic proposals to block a percentage of solar radiation via large-scale interventions in the atmosphere, stratosphere and outer space that would (without doubt) alter global temperatures and precipitation patterns.
    ETC Group Executive Director, Pat Mooney: “This decision is a victory for common sense. This decision clearly places the governance of geo-engineering in the United Nations where it belongs.”
    This decision will not inhibit legitimate, UN-approved scientific research. Decisions on geo-engineering cannot be made by small groups of scientists from a small group of countries that establish self-serving "voluntary guidelines" on climate hacking.
    e.g. The UK Royal Society and its partners should now place on hold their Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative until UN approval is obtained. The UK should respect that the world’s governments have collectively decided that future deliberations on geo-engineering must take place in the UN, where all countries have a seat at the table and where civil society can watch and influence what they are doing.”
    Delegates in Nagoya have now clearly understood the potential threat that deployment – or even field testing – of geo-engineering technologies poses to the protection of biodiversity. The decision was adopted by the Working Group 1 Plenary on 27 October 2010.
    So, the use of such weather-altering technology as HAARP is now in contravention of a mandated UN Resolution. 193 copuntries signed the resolution.
    Yet the United States of American is planning to shoot microscopic glass particles into the startosphere in order to fend off global warming.
    How dare they!
    Who does the United States think it is? God? The arrogance of it!
    How dare they go against the UN. The UN ought to condemn this action, and sanctions should result.

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  • 15. At 5:39pm on 02 Jan 2011, PAWB46 wrote:

    "of course I'm still seriously writing about global warming - do you seriously doing otherwise is an option, given the importance of the issue?"

    It's global cooling that we all need to be concerned about. Global cooling kills. Global warming is good - fewer diseases, more food.

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  • 16. At 6:04pm on 02 Jan 2011, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    come on everyone
    What is really going on?
    Big snow storms.
    Birds falling out of the sky, dead.
    Parrots falling out of the sky, 'drunk.'
    Unusual, massive flooding in Australia.
    Warning of further massive storms in Australia.
    The usual tornadoes in USA but still destructive.

    Did the earth move or was it just a side effect of flu?

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  • 17. At 8:06pm on 02 Jan 2011, PAWB46 wrote:

    sensiblegrannieAt 6:04pm on 02 Jan 2011

    Didn't you know, the're all a result of man-made global warming? Everything is a result of man-made global warming. ☺

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  • 18. At 8:21pm on 02 Jan 2011, Brunnen wrote:

    #16. sensiblegrannie wrote:

    come on everyone
    What is really going on?
    Big snow storms.
    Birds falling out of the sky, dead.
    Parrots falling out of the sky, 'drunk.'
    Unusual, massive flooding in Australia.
    Warning of further massive storms in Australia.
    The usual tornadoes in USA but still destructive.


    According to warmist doctrine, nothing.

    Weather is not climate, so it is to be ignored.

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  • 19. At 9:01pm on 02 Jan 2011, Jack Hughes wrote:

    Meanwhile, wind power generates 0.2% of the nation's electricity.

    See the online figures for yourself here. Right at the bottom of the page.

    And the coal power stations have to keep going at full output as well so the lights don't go out when the wind stops.

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  • 20. At 07:36am on 03 Jan 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    Another typo: "do you seriously doing otherwise is an option, given the importance of the issue?"

    Do I seriously think doing otherwise is an option, given the importance of the AGW issue?

    Given its importance, I seriously think that providing more balanced coverage of that issue should be your New Year's resolution Richard - seriously. And more variety in the topics you cover would be nice.

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  • 21. At 10:20am on 03 Jan 2011, PingoSan wrote:

    You know the watermelons have lost the global warming debate when they start making even fuzzier claims about biodiversity and over-population.

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  • 22. At 1:21pm on 03 Jan 2011, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    I discovered a site which gives a global picture of disasters occurring around the world. You probably know of it but, just in case you don't, here it is. (ps I like their motto)

    I did not understand the satellite temperature readings for Australia today because I did not know what they referred to exactly. Can someone explain please.

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  • 23. At 2:16pm on 03 Jan 2011, sensiblegrannie wrote:


    The World Disaster map changes so quickly that the question I posed about Australian temps is no longer relevant because the information is no longer there.

    Europe is having some earthquake trouble which appears to be linked to the fault line from our Icelandic volcano.
    I think this real-time world disaster information is interesting as long as all interpretations are made with a degree of caution.

    I like their idea of preparing citizens for global events because it is a more realistic approach to citizen management. GOVERNMENTS ARE NOT MAGICAL. Governments cannot deal with a country-wide crisis on their own. IF citizens are prepared, knowledgeable and proactive, they can relieve the pressure on government paid services in an emergency. Governments can then be more effective at managing the bigger problems.

    Treating citizens like children and not providing them with the critical information to deal with changing circumstances, only adds to chaos.

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  • 24. At 2:38pm on 03 Jan 2011, GeoffWard wrote:

    could you just drop a posting saying why you or someone closed the last Cancun blog-topic with just a few comments posted?

    I spent an amount of time preparing a posting and then found it 'prematurely' terminated.
    A pity also as the Christmas period gave me much time to search/compose/discuss.

    Thanks, Geoff.

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  • 25. At 3:48pm on 03 Jan 2011, Muskelaufbau wrote:

    i love sharks , they are really fascinating.



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  • 26. At 4:02pm on 03 Jan 2011, Brunnen wrote:

    I don't think anyone in their right mind can support finning.

    For me there are two factors that make it unacceptable.

    1. It is cruel ad wasteful. Chopping a shark's fins off and then throwing it into the sea to bleed to death or suffocate (sharks have to constantly swim to move water over their gills, otherwise they suffocate) is a stunningly cruel practice. Not to mention the waste from only harvesting the fins and discarding the rest of the animal.

    2. Most shark species are endangered. Hunting an endangered species is incredibly stupid.

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  • 27. At 4:54pm on 03 Jan 2011, rossglory wrote:

    #26 brunnen

    one of your posts i can agree with! ....apart from the 'sharks suffocate if they stop' comment which is only true for most oceanic sharks.

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  • 28. At 8:05pm on 03 Jan 2011, Brunnen wrote:

    It should, of course, have said 'most sharks have to constantly swim'.

    Typo on my part there.

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  • 29. At 8:58pm on 03 Jan 2011, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    I don't have a great deal of empathy for any predator with big sharp teeth. My thoughts can only be on how far I can keep myself away from such creatures. However, if sharks and other creatures with large sharp teeth need saving that's fine, so long as I don't have to do the saving.

    Do people really chop off fins of sharks and put the live sharks back in the water? I find the idea of that incredibly awful. There something innately abhorrent about removing part of an animal and then releasing what is left of it back into the wild to die slowly and painfully.

    If aliens were watching our actions on Earth, I wonder what they would think of such human activities?

    Shark liver oil is an ingredient of some vaccines is it not?

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