Want to save sharks? Let’s talk about more than shark fishing

Last week the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute released its National Plan of Action for protection of sharks. This is ostensibly one of India’s contributions to its obligations as an FAO member country. Other moves to develop an NPOA for sharks are also ongoing within the Bay of Bengal Programme, for example.

The plan mostly calls for a lot of research, data sharing, better coordination of regulators and stakeholders and, finally, the review and development of new conservation measures. The plan stops short of suggesting for very specific regulations.

While this might seem to make the report toothless — hint, it probably is — this lack of hard measures could actually be a wise move; inclusive and well-thought fisheries policy will come best from a broad, transparent and participatory process, not from top-down, command-and-control, high science advisors.

As a caveat: I’ve been following a lot of this in the background; I marginally volunteer with the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, based in far south India’s Kanyakumari region. This association of fishers concentrated around the village of Thoothoor is one of the key actors in India’s “indigenous” shark fishery. And to be clear about my own interests, I’m a diver, I do personally have great appreciation for sharks, I do not eat fish, I work in community conservation and, in general, I research fisheries.

All of that informs the following argument: This plan (and the response from, for example, my scuba diving networks) is too narrowly focused on fishers and consigns the conversation too much to debates about fisheries management. This is an example of problem closure: The problem is framed as one of unconscionable fishing habits (i.e. shark finning, killing majestic fish and so on), so the solutions target fishers.

Emblematic was the response of one mainland India scuba shop in a Facebook post:

India has the largest population of fishermen in the world. But, India does not eat sharks. So, why is it that India is the largest killer of sharks in the world?
It is the greed of a few middlemen selling shark fins to China that is causing this mindless killing of the “Tigers of the Sea”. Come, join us in saving these magnificient [sic] beasts of the ocean from extinction. ‪#‎SaveOurSharks‬ ‪#‎ProjectAware‬ ‪#‎Sharks‬ ‪#‎Fisheries‬ ‪#‎ScubaDiving‬ ‪#‎Environment‬

Yes, middlemen do contribute to unsustainable trade, but, for the record, there has also been an “indigenous” shark fishery in India for at least a few decades. The Thoothoor area fishers in Kanyakumari use longlines and medium-scale boats (under 20 meters) across the EEZ (and beyond) to catch various pelagics — sharks as well as tunas and billfishes. This is their livelihood, not simply a commodity racket; they are not just a bunch of shark finners (though that may also occur).

Also, contrary to the oft-repeated myth, people in southern India (particularly in Kanyakumari) do actually eat shark. Sharks are landed whole and consumed. Furthermore, as the background research to CMFRI’s NPOA makes clear, sharks fishing is not constrained to a small group; a variety of fishing communities across India, including the concentration at Thoothoor, participate in the fishery.

I’m not in denial, nor am I an apologist. Certainly, unsustainable shark fishing occurs in Indian waters — by Indian fishers as well as foreign IUU (or ridiculous LoP) boats. Shark catches are down substantially — as much as 40 percent by my own math over the last ten or so years (depending on what data you use).

But it’s not at all clear which fishers or middlemen are the ones involved in fin trade or which fishers contribute to rampant bycatch or which fishers are simply taking too much shark (along with skate and ray) from the water.

Looking at the pictures of sharks, skates and rays landed is difficult for those who foremost wish to protect marine biodiversity; it turns even my stomach, and gives the sense that majestic and ecologically important creatures are being slaughtered. But this is also a tradition and livelihood that should not be so quickly castigated. Fishing as a practice may also generate its own conservation politics. And, from a ecological perspective, some shark fishing may yet be sustainable, if the external political and economic incentives are more properly aligned and other marine threats are attenuated.

That’s why it’s difficult to get onboard with any knee-jerk agenda that falls back on platitudes that blame one group of people (fishers, for example). The NPOA is reserved in its language, but even it focuses on shark conservation through better management and restriction of fishers.

Certainly fisheries can be better managed. Full stop. And additional restraint is likely necessary. Full stop. But if we resort to the “greedy fisher” or “ignorant fisher” or “race for fish” rhetoric, we are less likely to serve the cause of sustainability or ecological protection. Too many marine conservation campaigns draw battle lines between fishers and non-fishers and see conservation outcomes as an us-vs-them / zero sum scenario. Furthermore, when we direct our attention too sharply at fishers, we lose sight of the incredible amounts degradation that non-ocean communities perpetrate on marine biodiversity. Again, we become complicit in problem closure by framing conservation needs as the need to restrain fishing.

I can’t say enough that shark fin soup is abhorrent. But consider that it’s also an easy target. How many people complain as loudly or as quickly about any of the myriad other threats to ocean sustainability overall:

  • offshore oil drilling
  • coastal SEZs
  • microbeads in toothpaste
  • plastic effing everywhere
  • a culture of complacency in waste management and personal disposal of litter
  • ridiculous levels of fertilizer and pesticide application
  • shipping wastes galore
  • industrial fishing that specifically generates feed for chickens for urban consumers but slaughters sharks in the process
  • eco-tourism that capture biodiversity spaces / places only for those who can afford it
  • unchecked urban carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, factories and cars, etc cause acidification/warming, etc.
  • neoliberal policies that privilege some ocean uses/users over others

The list could go on and on and on and on and on. Unsustainable fishing is but one and there already are voices within the fishing community for sustainable practices and conservation.

Rather than limit our discussion to controlling a bunch of wild, ignorant, backwards, pick-your-pejorative fishers, let’s talk about a holistic, concerted effort to:

  • Embed sustainability into lifestyles and livelihoods (among fishers, sure, but also among other classes and bodies that affect the ocean, such everyone who drives a car in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and everywhere between).
  • Generate and sustain conservation attitudes/knowledge/cooperation for protection of the entire community of ocean dependent life (fisher, non-fisher, non-human). We divers can help with this by sharing our passions through education, training and experiences with people other than the rich tourists who can afford dive holidays.
  • Remove perverse and pernicious incentives for degradation (much of which is rooted in runaway urban consumption patterns). Know where your food comes from; was your chicken fed on fishmeal?
  • Halt coastal developments that threaten crucial ecosystems, habitats and the like. This and this.
  • Question current and future offshore minerals prospecting thatsupport an urban, high capital economy.

Let’s do that all of that, instead of only falling back on a “target-fishers-first” rhetoric and appeals to protect charismatic megafauna.

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Cod-forsaken fish sticks

Writing about fisheries, hankering for veggie fish and chips

Writing about fisheries, hankering for veggie fish and chips

Interesting story yesterday from Maine. And I’ll get to how it relates to my culinary experiment (pictured above) earlier this year.

The lobster population has been exploding in the Gulf of Maine, which is a productive, protected and generally successful fishery. A problem: A high lobster population means lower prices. Sure, that’s good news for consumers who like everything to be cheap. But it’s bad news for local fishermen charged with protecting and husbanding the fishery while simultaneously paying bills.

The twist: This fishery dilemma dates to an earlier one, the overfishing of cod in New England. Cod eat everything off the ocean floor. Predation of lobster by cod was, according to scientists, an ecological check-and-balance.

What caused overfishing of cod? Among other phenomena, the fish stick. Yes, I’m suggesting that fish sticks constitute a phenomenon. So powerful was the mass-consumptive call for frozen, reheated, generic, white fish that the irrepressibly abundant cod are all but gone from the great George’s Bank. (Climate change may also have something to do with it.)

From Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, A 1950s advertisement from the Glouchester seafood company Gorton’s claimed that fish sticks were the

“latest, greatest achievement of the seafood industry of today… Thanks to fish sticks, the average American homemaker no longer considers serving fish a drudgery. Instead she regards it as a pleasure, just as her family have come to consider fish one of their favorite foods. Easy to prepare, thrifty to serve and delicious to eat, fish sticks, it can be truthfully said, have greatly increased the demand for fish, while revolutionizing the fishing industry.”

And this is how we get the picture above, my tofu-batter-vinegar-shallow-fry earlier this year. The social construct of the fish stick is powerful, indeed.

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Dear India, it’s time for a new marine conservation agenda

Front page of the Hindustan Times website

The 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity wrapped up yesterday. Today the Hindustan Times published my response op-ed, challenging the Indian government to move forward with an aggressive marine conservation agenda. It’s linked from the front page of HT’s web site at the moment.

The op-ed itself is based on my summer research on India’s EEZ conservation status and the institutional marine research/knowledge/policy regime. That research culminated in a published report and atlas of conservation and environmental metrics of the Indian EEZ.

Ignore the random but incredibly humorous Victoria’s Secret ad center screen. Thankfully, that ad is automatically placed only based on my U.S. location. In India, at least, I’m not competing with advertisements of women in lingerie.

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India needs to make bold commitment to marine conservation

An atlas of biodiversity and environmental parameters

I spent the summer conducting a review of scholarly literature, data, government reports and other information sources for spatially explicit information on the India EEZ. The goal was through a GIS analysis to recommend areas with marine conservation potential where India has jurisdiction. The methodology loosely follows examples of the EBSA designation process.

Greenpeace, my employer, has released my work today and is calling on India to show the international community its commitment to marine conservation by taking a bold statement on protection and management, in advance of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity which will be hosted in Hyderabad in October.

You can read my full report here on Greenpeace’s Web site. Still waiting to see if we get any press out of the report launch event held in Delhi today.

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