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 a 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, but it could actually be a wise move; inclusive and well-thought fisheries policy will come best from a broad, transparent and participatory process.

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, so the solutions are 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 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 across the EEZ (and beyond) to catch various pelagics — sharks as well as tuna. 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; 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 of blame on one groups of people (fishers, for example) or another. The NPOA is reserved in its language, but even it focuses targets for 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 managing a bunch of wild 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. For example, 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 to support 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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Get it straight, Delhi. That’s not fog. It’s smog.

It’s the time of the year when the Indian media start writing about predictions for Delhi’s winter fog. Poisonous, toxic “fog.”

Which really makes it not fog at all, but smog. This year there may be 100 hundred dismal hours of it.

Delhi, it’s time we owned up to it. Call a spade a spade and start thinking about how to fix the problem. And to be clear, the problem is us.

Yes, weather plays a small part, but as I’ve written before, what makes the wintry choking haze particularly harmful is in fact human pollution. I’m not alone in arguing that we actually need to shift our discourse and talk about the phenomenon as anthropogenic smog, not just annoying wintry smog.

And new research shows it’s worse than you ever thought. During rush hour, pollution (particulate matter) at autorickshaw-level — where most people breathe — is apparently 50 percent higher than all what is measured by those safely cloistered ambient air measuring stations on top of buildings and away from roads.

And, in case anyone needs a reminder, even the ambient air readings aren’t exactly awesome. In fact, they’re exactly not awesome.

At least India can claim to beat both Pakistan and China in this regard:

Delhi’s air pollution levels, which, according to the latest WHO Ambient Air Pollution Database, are at just under 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The world’s second most polluted city, Karachi, clocks in at a little over 250, while the major Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, internationally notorious for their pollution, clock in a relatively fresh 120 and 80 respectively.

(Really not the race we want to be winning.)

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Delhi-wale, it’s smog, not fog

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

It seems that everyone in Delhi — as is common this time of year — is concerned about Delhi’s weather and the thick soupy mess that ruins lungs and visibility and generally delays everything. I remember once getting lost at night literally 100 yards from my own apartment because I couldn’t see. Delhi-wale understand that this is an annual occurrence, though apparently it’s worse than usual.

But our understanding of what is actually happening suffers from a few misperceptions, so we in the middle or upper classes remain unable (or choose not) to diagnose the situation properly. And for lack of a good diagnosis, we are unlikely to ever ameliorate the worst of it.

What do I mean? Let’s begin with an unscientific but poignant armchair test. I have Googled two sets of terms. Consider their hit counts.

Delhi fog: 1,380,000,000 hits

Delhi smog: 1,180,000 hits

Clearly, linguistically, we consider this to be fog. In our collective understanding, it’s not smog, which would more strongly imply pollution.

I can hear the Delhi-ite protesting that s/he is not an idiot and knows full-well that Delhi suffers from air pollution. I agree, but as a rejoinder, I ask, “When was the last time someone speaking Hindi said “smog-wog” instead of “fog-wog.” My point: The language we use to describe the phenomenon colors our perception.

Why do we think this way? Well, for starters, fog is historical in this season, so it’s common to react as though nature is just being nature. This is the climate of Delhi and the climate of Delhi suggests there will be fog at this time of year. So perhaps we’re already less inclined to consider this critically.

Our perception of the “fog” also suffers because baselines are always shifting — a concept that arose from fisheries analysis that suggests we collectively have trouble understanding what a system used to be like in the generation before us. This arises because the memories of a system early in my career or childhood form my baseline for assessing change and I have great difficulty then quantifying/understanding the experience of a generation before me. So we can expect that most people in Delhi will have trouble really discerning whether the “fog” was better or worse in previous periods because their baselines don’t include the generation prior. Broadly speaking, our inter-generational memory is crap.

In addition, I will argue that the massive socioeconomic changes that have occurred even intra-generation in India actually further hamper our ability to discern whether the “fog” is actually worse. This is because the yardsticks by which we might measure the severity today — for example, technical monitoring, the number of delayed flights, visibility while driving — are difficult to compare to, say, twenty years ago. Definitions of particulate matter change as does monitoring equipment and stations, particularly given India’s rapidly developing techno-capacity. Meanwhile, the number of flights has grown drastically, as has the number of people who have experience driving in “fog.”

Unfortunately, when we in the middle/upper class do see the “fog” more appropriately as “smog,” we may still tend to inappropriately assign blame to the poor.

(Note: This is hardly an Indian phenomenon. The world over, in developed and developing country alike, we wrongly blame the poor both for their poverty and for pollution. In 1972 at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, then-PM Indira Gandhi famously declared that “poverty is the biggest polluter” and most of the world’s leaders agreed.)

Back to the case of Delhi’s smog: In winter, India’s poor are often forced to resort to outdoor fires — cow dung, wood, scrap paper, leaves, plastic, whatever — to keep warm. And it all seems perfectly reasonable, as Delhi winter nighttime temperatures approach freezing, so staying warm is literally a public health concern. The haze of these fires is a common experience among hutments as is the small fire outside a chowkidar’s shack in middle and upper class neighborhoods. This is a tangible occurrence, and it certainly contributes to the annual smog — visible, smellable, heavy particulate smoke in the air can’t be ignored — but it’s certainly not the only cause.

The middle and upper classes deserve a hefty share of blame, for several reasons. First, we keep warm by increasing our electricity consumption to power those ubiquitous space heaters. Electricity in India primarily comes from coal-fired powerplants, which we know is a heavy polluter. But because we don’t all have a smokestack in our neighborhood, we tend to ignore that portion of our contribution to the smog. Second, the middle and upper classes drive and car exhaust is another serious pollution source. Yet we also tend to ignore this because it is a part of our year-round experience. There’s no temporal pollution source to link to the seasonal “fog.” Yet our tailpipes are certainly doing their part. Third, consider a prime culprit behind Delhi’s perpetual dust, which also contributes to poor air quality. Delhi, like most major Indian cities, is constantly under construction. A lot of this construction is for the newly minted, ever increasing middle and upper classes. And while construction itself yields volumes of air-borne particulate, construction also tends to rip up green spaces which otherwise might mitigate airborne dust and keep soil in place. But again, construction is year-round (and a sign of prosperity) so perhaps we tend to think of it less.

This would all be idle pontification if we didn’t also know that Delhi’s air quality is actually hazardous, particularly in this season.

Of course, air quality is an environmental problem that is, at best, difficult to tackle. But we can’t hope to even make a dent if we can’t diagnose it properly.

I understand that this is only a casual analysis. But I think it’s clear: It’s not fog. It’s smog.

And we’re all to blame.

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Let’s work in concert

I’m a sucker for well-produced, moving video.

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Wart slug on ailing reef…

The reef be dying...

Reefs the world over are suffering, as warming water (and possibly other factors) disrupt their productive symbiosis with a specific protozoa, zooxanthella. Each relies on the other for nutrients and energy, and the protozoa also give hard coral blocks their color.

But when this is cycle is disrupted — again, mostly my warming waters due to global warming but also acidification — the corals can’t maintain this balance and typically expel their zooxanthellae. This leads to a bleached — white or light colored — reef, which is my experience is typically then recovered by a different algae, like we see above.

This whole imbalance also typically wipes out other sensitive populations. For example, in the Andamans, the fast-evolving delicate nudibranchs have all but disappeared according to environmentalists and the dive community. When I was diving there, only the varicose wart slugs (above) were left.

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This is what Democracy looks like!

And then, they were arrested...

Photo by Josh Lopez

See anyone familiar? (Look just above the second eight).

I now have an arrest record. And after two weeks, more than 1,250 people built (or added to) one, too.

There’s more to the tale coming in subsequent posts. But in the meantime, you should read in to find out the serious trouble literally coming down the pipeline.

By the ways, “Show me what Democracy looks like! / This is what Democracy looks like!” is the best call-and-response protest chant out there.

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Goodbye healthy reef

Deep blue Dixon's Pinnacle

About 100 feet beneath the ocean several miles off Havelock Island is a picture of what is fast disappearing: healthy reef.

Coral ecosystems — the rain forests of the ocean, as it were — are fading and collapsing in the face of global warming, coral bleaching, overfishing, agricultural runoff, human waste pollution, the list goes on.

We can congratulate ourselves for mucking about too much.

If you’re interested in knowing more, I encourage you to check out the research and conclusions from International Programme on the State of the Ocean.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this particular slice of the environment is something I’m dedicating my life to. So, in my world view, it’s too damn important to not talk about.

More life than you can shake a stick at

Fish and more be everywhere

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