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A new survey of shark and ray researchers takes a bite out of the popular belief that shark fishing and the shark fin trade should be banned. As it turns out, a large majority of shark experts believe that sustainable fisheries are not only possible, they are actually preferable to protecting sharks with sanctuaries or outright bans on fishing.
The result may seem counterintuitive, acknowledges lead author David Shiffman, but the finding points to the fact that wildlife conservation is more nuanced than the general public tends to appreciate. While people may believe that all shark species are endangered, and that any form of shark fishing threatens to push populations to collapse, Shiffman says the best available science evidence does not support those ideas.
The survey also reflects a concern among scientists that more extreme voices in the conservation community may be overshadowing a more evidence-based approach to protection.
“One of our conclusions from this is that those in the research community and those in the advocacy community should talk to one another more,” Shiffman says.
Shiffman, a PhD candidate at the University of Miami studying shark ecology and conservation, got the idea for the survey after realizing that while conservationists have spent time learning about the attitudes and opinions of many stakeholders in the shark fishing debate—such as fishermen, conservationists, and people in the shark tourism industry—there was no real record of what shark experts think about the issue.
Shiffman distributed a voluntary online survey to members of the three largest professional shark and ray research societies. Of the 102 researchers who responded, 84 percent said sustainable shark fisheries are possible, and 90 percent felt that making fisheries sustainable—rather than pushing for fishing bans—should be the goal of conservation policies. Interestingly, the more scientific papers a scientist had published on shark fisheries, the more likely he or she was to say that sustainable shark fishing was possible.
In general, the scientists favor policies that protect specific species, rather than those that set regional limits on shark fishing. Out of 12 conservation policies considered, shark sanctuaries and bans on shark finning received the least support from the researchers.
Sonja Fordham, the president of Shark Advocates International, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for science-based shark conservation policies, wasn’t surprised by the results. She says that most scientists are data-driven, and agrees that evidence shows managing fisheries is the best way to protect sharks. “There aren’t a whole lot of success stories out there,” she says, “but the ones that we have, the recovery was due to quotas, or species-specific prohibition.”
But, Fordham stresses that a range of factors, not just data, go into shaping fishing policy. Developing countries might lack the resources for intensive fisheries management, and find that an outright ban is a better alternative. And conservation groups focused on animal welfare may oppose shark finning because they believe that it is cruel, even if the data say it can be done sustainably.
“Scientists are not the only experts,” she says. “Just because you’re an expert in shark science, you’re not automatically an expert in policy.”