Friday, September 15, 2006

Vulnerable sharks

The launch a couple of weeks ago of a new coalition of NGOs and scientific organizations to seek the conservation and sustainable management of sharks, the Shark Alliance, is good news.

Because of their bad reputation, few people (if you compare with the widespread concerns for dolphins, whales, sea turtles, seals or even deepsea species other than sharks) seem to care for the fact that sharks are going down the tube worldwide. When Kelly and I were asked a year ago by a large foundation concerned with marine biodiversity to interview specialists and to prepare a report to scope out options for a strategic approach to shark conservation, many laypersons unfamiliar with the challenges of biodiversity were telling us "You work on sharks! Why do you want to protect them?". One finding that struck me when we undertook this work last year was in a report that said that the number of people attacked (in unclear circumstances) by a shark in the Mediterranean since World War II was...two ! Compare this with the number of people who die every year, every day, when they drive to the Mediterranean coast; that helps putting things in perspective. Why do most people fear sharks, and continue to love cars?

Like all top predators, sharks (often described as the wolves of the sea) help us rethink the role of humankind in nature. Their plight can help people move from an homocentric to an ecocentric understanding of our world.

NGOs want to alert the European Parliament of an imminent attempt to weaken the current European legislation that was designed to prevent shark finning (the dumping of the whole shark body after fins have been removed to be exported to Hong Kong and end up in shark fin soups, a Chinese gourmet dish whose consumption is booming in the new China and elsewhere).

Rather than weakening, the EU legislation needs strengthening, if the European Union wants to take seriously its pledge to minimize its global environmental footprint. The European Union pledges to be an environmental leader, but it is a shark finning superpower. After so much talking about the need to reduce the impact of international trade on biodiversity, stopping shark finning would be a good opportunity for the European Union to put its words into action.

At their request, I will join the NGOs at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in the last week of September, when this issue will be discussed.

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