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Pew Shark Defender, Matt Rand, Talks To Asian Scientist Magazine

Matt Rand, Director of Global Shark Conservation, updates us on his team’s efforts to protect sharks around the world.

| June 22, 2011 | Features

Matt Rand, Global Shark ConservationMatt Rand, Director of the Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group

AsianScientist (Jun. 22, 2011) - Today, I'm talking with Matt Rand about a far-reaching and significant problem: how do we save the world’s greatest predator, the majestic and thrilling Selachimorpha, from near-extinction due to overfishing practices?

In China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, shark fin soup is a delicacy widely eaten during events that range from company dinners, to weddings, and anniversaries. In the neighboring countries of Australia, India and Japan, the rest of the shark is also eaten along with its fins.

Up to 73 million sharks are killed annually, and that number will only rise with the burgeoning population and growing number of wealthy elites in Asia.

Matt Rand, Director of Global Shark Conservation at the non-profit organization Pew Charitable Trusts, is one of the leaders behind this effort. His team has helped to establish shark sanctuaries in the Pacific island of Palau and the Republic of Maldives, where sharks are used to attract dive tourists. An economic analysis performed by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that the value of a single reef shark to dive tourism is US$179,000 annually. The same shark, if sold for consumption, is worth only US$108.

Mr. Rand tells Asian Scientist Magazine what his team has been focusing on lately, and we discuss ideas on how his team's effort may be brought to the front lines of Asia.

What can we expect to hear from the Global Shark Conservation group in the upcoming months?

The Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation is very active globally, trying to ensure that shark populations around the world remain healthy, or recover, if they have been depleted.

In fact, I just got back from Palau. We have staff members working in Honduras, contractors working in the Middle East, Indian Ocean, in the Atlantic region, Europe, Australia, South America, and throughout the Pacific, so we are very engaged around the world.

I hope that there will be yet another shark sanctuary soon; hopefully the legislature in Chile will pass a law banning the practice of shark finning, within the next week or so.

(Editor's note: After this interview was published, we were informed that the Chilean Chamber of Deputies unanimously passed legislation that bans the practice of shark finning in Chilean waters. The Senate must approve the current version of this bill before it moves to President Sebastián Piñera for his signature. Good job Chile!)

That must be new, we hadn't heard about such legislature in Chile before. What is happening there?

Chile is one of the last few countries in South America that allows shark finning, which is the practice of catching the shark, cutting off its fins, and throwing the body back at sea. That is still technically legal in Chile. We have been working in Chile with the legislators there to stop this practice, and hopefully legislature will pass in the next few weeks.

As a first step, we have been working with the legislators to ensure that all sharks are caught with their fins naturally attached. We have also talked to the legislators about protecting species of shark that are vulnerable, and also about the potential of shark sanctuaries within their waters.

The Shark Conservation Act was passed on Dec 21, 2010 by the US House and Senate, and signed by President Obama into law. How has that helped so far?

It has helped get the United States reinvigorated both domestically and globally. It is also a signal to many nations around the world that this is an issue of high importance, and one that other countries need to start focusing attention on.

In 2010, Japan and China, as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), rejected proposals from the US, EU and Palau to regulate trade in several species of sharks. How has that hurt the Conservation Act?

Four proposals were introduced to list eight species of shark on Appendix 2 of a global trade treaty. If the sharks had been listed on Appendix 2, then only trade that has been deemed sustainable will be legal. Anything that has been proven to be non-sustainable would not be traded.

Palau and the EU co-submitted two proposals, the US and Palau co-submitted two proposals. It was apparent that Japan and China had opposed the proposals, and therefore, because of their and other countries opposition the proposals did not pass.

It was unfortunate as these are eight species of sharks that have significant scientific merit, and that had also seen significant global depletion. Those eight species of shark could have used the protections afforded to them. I think this is both a negative, but also a bit of a wake-up call to the rest of the world.

However, I would like to credit China and Japan for efforts at the ICCAT (The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas). The ICCAT is an international convention that mandates and sets standards for the high seas in the Atlantic, and advises on highly migratory fish in the Atlantic.

Japan championed an effort to protect one of the species that was proposed at CITES, the oceanic white tip. It also strongly supported protections for hammerhead shark species.

China has also vocally supported the proposal to protect hammerhead sharks, and the proposals are moving forward at ICCAT.

How much of the global problem is due to shark fin consumption in Asia?

Well, I would start by saying it is a multiple pronged problem when it comes to sharks – it is not merely consumption. It is both targeted catch, untargeted catch, unregulated fishery, and over-consumption.

The other aspect is that sharks are biologically vulnerable to overfishing. They don’t have the capacity, unlike other bony fish, for reproduction. They reproduce very late, and have very few young, which makes them very susceptible to overfishing.

We have sharks that are caught for targeted fisheries, and also by fisheries (untargeted catch). Hence, some are unintentional; but regardless, we are catching too many sharks and killing too many sharks globally.

There is of course an economic incentive for catching sharks, and it is primarily not for its meat. For most species of shark, their meat is not very valuable, and in fact, they have very low quality meat to a point where the practice of shark finning started, primarily for shark fin soup.

So, on the consumption side of things, it is primarily shark fin soup, which is primarily an Asian delicacy. The soup can be found all over the world, even in Washington DC, LA, and in Europe. Just about anywhere you go, you can find shark fin soup.

Does the Pew Environment Group global shark conservation have local alliances and partners in Asia to support your efforts?

We have focused on shark sanctuaries, fishing practices, and international treaties. Our efforts have just started in Asia, but the other focused efforts of the campaign such as shark sanctuaries and work at the international level has been active for two years now.

We are now focused on the demand side, and how to engage in Asia more strategically.

The Pew Environment Group has been successful in setting up shark sanctuaries and moving forward legislature. The root of the problem, in my opinion, lies in century old traditions in Asia, where there is a strong connection of shark fin soup with events like birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. Is there anything that we can do to break that link?

We have done a lot of research into the dynamics and how we can approach this issue. We recognize the cultural connection, and we are considering that in our approach in Asia.

Hopefully we can change the dynamics and people can recognize that there is a major environmental concern in eating shark fin soup. And not just an environmental concern, as it goes way back to the health of the ocean, which is obviously directly related to the health of people.

Hence, we like to work with local groups to raise issues and approach the problem. For example, in the Bahamas, we are working with the Bahamas National Trust, which has been working in the Bahamas on environmental issues for 50 years. It is staffed by locals who understand the issue from a both a global and domestic perspective.

I think we would take the same model into Asia. We bring expertise in tackling the issue at a global level, but we are looking for advice on how to address the issue in Asia. That would very well mean working with Asian groups and government officials.

Sharks have a poor public image. Even in Pixar cartoons such as Finding Nemo, sharks are portrayed as the bad guys. We also hear news stories of sharks biting off limbs of surfers. What do you think is the best way to approach public relations of sharks?

Yes, sharks do have a public relations problem. We have worked with a group of about 15 to 20 shark attack survivors. Some of them have lost limbs, arms, and legs, and some have even been near death.

They are great spokespeople for shark conservation, and they have advocated in the United Nations and at Congress for shark conservation. They are changing the way people are looking at sharks: why are these people, of all people, who should have animosity towards sharks, are here saying we need to protect them.

The reason they are supportive of it, is they have been educated about the global dynamics, what is happening to sharks, and why they are important to the marine environment. These shark attack survivors have decided to take a negative, them being attacked by sharks, and turn it into a positive, and have delivered a very compelling message to anyone who would listen.

The other is just basic education, that shark attacks are very very rare, even though the news media loves to hype it up, and that sharks are very important for the marine environment. Sharks have been around since the time of the dinosaurs - in fact, before the dinosaurs - and they’ve survived multiple mass extinctions. Unfortunately, many species are now facing extinctions themselves.

Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation
Shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder, right, speaks, next to fellow shark attack survivor Achmat Hassiem, front center, and Matt Rand, left, during a news conference urging the United Nations to adopt measures to protect sharks. (Source: Tina Fineberg / AP).

Some myths in Asia about sharks include that they prevent cancer, joint pain, and virtually any kind of ailment. Can we instead work on the scientific angle – by debunking these age old myths?

I haven’t seen anything in the literature that proves these are correct. So there is definitely a scientific element in debunking the myths, that shark fin soup isn’t a cure-all.

We are looking into how to be as strategic as possible, since scientific research isn’t always quick, and if we engage these scientific questions that we are answering the right questions.

Because ultimately, we don’t want to answer questions that don’t matter to the public. Let say we find out shark fins doesn’t really help you in any medical way, but if it doesn’t change people’s opinions since they like shark fin soup, we could have wasted time and resources.

There are many scientific questions that could help this issue, but I want to look at what is the most effective way forward.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says sharks are one of the four fish with high mercury content that is a hazard to children and pregnant women. Can we create a health hazard connection – sort of like a smoking campaign?

Primarily, there has been a bit of research whether contaminants like heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) carry into the fins. It is not clear to me whether the heavy metals transfer into the soup.

Within the meat, the evidence is clear that mercury is present, and this an issue that should be addressed. For countries that eat the meat, we can highlight the issue that the meat has high levels of mercury and may have contaminants.

To read more about Matt and his team's work:
Pew Environment Group


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Photo and Info sources: Pew Environment Group, Alex Hofford Photography.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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