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Richard Peirce*

The Shark Trust celebrates being 15 years old this year so it’s an appropriate time to take a look back at how shark conservation started and has developed since.

By the end of the 1980’s marine scientists and conservationists had become aware of the threat to shark populations due to the increasing demand for shark fins from China and Southeast Asia. The IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) was set up in 1991 and Sarah Fowler, who was part of the SSG at that time, remembers interest from the general public looking for an organisation they could join to help raise awareness of the threats to shark populations. It was partly in response to this public interest that Sarah Fowler, Bob Earll, Ian Fergusson and others started the Shark Trust in 1997.

By the mid 1990’s I became concerned when I started hearing reports of the increasing numbers being killed for the fin trade. There weren’t many voices raised in support of sharks back then, and when I first heard of the Shark Trust my reaction was “Great, there are other people out there”! I joined the Trust in 1998, became a trustee in 2004 and then chairman later in the same year. The effective public awareness campaigning of the Trust and similar organisations has meant that 15 years later the pro-shark lobby is a large, ever increasing, global movement. In the mid 90’s we were lone voices, but today are part of a worldwide clamour that is being heard by legislators and decision makers.

Fowler remembers the advent of targeted shark fisheries in the early 90’s in response to the increasing demand for fins. Twenty years later the effect of these fisheries is evidenced in many ways. Of the 34 shark species found in UK waters, over 50% are in an IUCN ‘Threatened’ or ‘Near Threatened’ category, with a further eight listed as ‘Data Deficient’ which means they could also be in a threatened category. Local extinctions have been declared in many places around the world including the Angel shark in the North Sea in December 2006.

I have personally observed declines in British waters, the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Mediterranean, south Australia, California, and South Africa. However, personal observations are anecdotal, what campaigners need is hard scientific fact. For years the talk was of 100 million sharks being killed annually for their fins. I was never able to find where this figure originated so stopped using it, and started saying “up to 100 million”. The only reliable research was published in 2006 by Dr Shelley Clarke who estimated that the fins from between 26 and 73 million sharks were entering the trade each year – her best guess was 38 million. NGOs and campaigners have done nothing to boost their credibility by mostly using the highest figures. I have on many occasions heard figures higher than 100 million, and once saw 200 million being quoted.

So what has the Shark Trust achieved? We have directly contributed to:- the adoption of a ban on shark finning in European waters and by the European fleet worldwide; the 2009 prohibition on the removal of fins at sea on all UK vessels; listing of sharks on international treaties including CITES and the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS); the emergency closure of the North East Atlantic deep water gillnet fishery; the increased management of sharks through the European Community Plan of Action for Sharks, and the EU Commission Fisheries Policy Total Allowable Catches and Quotas; working with UK government agencies on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the UK Biodiversity action plan; supporting efforts being made in China towards curtailing fin consumption; and numerous public awareness and public recording programmes. A lot has been done, a lot is being done, but a lot more needs doing. In June 2011 the Shark Trust presented ‘Shark Champion’ awards to Ding Liguo, Wan Jie, and Jim Zhang. These awards were in recognition of their proposals to the Chinese government seeking a ban on the import of shark fins.

On June 18th this year China’s State Council Government Offices Administration (GOA) issued a “GOA Official Letter” (2012-21) which replied to the motion of “Suggesting banning shark fin consumption from government banquets and meals”. In the letter the State Council praised Mr Ding Liguo of the National People’s Congress (NPC) for proposing the motion, and noted Mr Liguo’s objective analysis of the reasons for banning shark fin consumption at government banquets. The letter mentioned the beneficial effect the ban would have in conserving marine eco-systems and their balance, that it would help promote a green and environmentally friendly lifestyle, would improve food security, and decrease the cost of government entertaining. An official State Council spokesperson confirmed that the ban would be in effect throughout China within three years.

Early in 2011 Jim Zhang joined with Ding Liguo of the NPC, and Wan Jie of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and formulated the strategy which led to each of them, Liguo and Jie, proposing the import ban to the NPC and the CPPCC. However, after the 2011 sessions of the NPC and the CPPCC Zhang and his political colleagues realised there would be no quick route to a ban on fin importing. Many sectors are involved among which are trade, customs, health, fisheries, agriculture and others and Zhang realised the proposed legislation could, and probably would, get bogged down and take many years.

This realisation led to our ‘Shark Champions’ re- adjusting their positions and looking for a faster way of limiting shark fin consumption. According to the rules if an NPC motion is supported by 30 congressional signatures, and a CPPCC one by 50, they have to be fully considered and must be responded to. Both Liguo and Jie secured the requisite signatures and made the same proposal to each legislative body that, “Shark fin consumption be banned from all government’s banquets and meals”.

As mentioned earlier this proposal has been officially accepted and is being put into action, and Zhang believes it will be remembered as a milestone in China’s progress towards protecting sharks.

With the once in a decade hand over of political powers across China being due later this year, the Communist party may have begun to recognise public outrage at the way in which officials feast at the taxpayer’s expense. This will certainly have helped the passage of the “banquet ban” on shark fins as the Communist Party will have been seen curbing the cost of taxpayer funded dining. An immediate effect of the proposed ban was that in July the price of shark fins in Beijing’s largest fish market crashed by 30 percent in a few days.

Whether the real motivation for government action was conservation or cost cutting, the effect cannot

but be beneficial to shark conservation. Such actions are powerful examples and send powerful messages, and Zhang, Wan and Liguo are to be congratulated for their part in this valuable step forward. NGOs and shark conservationists around the world applauded the move, and many noted that this was the first official government action in support of sharks, which meant that China acknowledged the problems caused by shark finning and the need for action.

For many years WildAid has been campaigning for a

fin ban in China, and in more recent times has been joined by several Chinese celebrities including the NBA superstar Yao Min. Sir Richard Branson is also supporting a ban, and China’s young people are increasingly turning their backs on the ways of the past.

Perhaps there’s not just cause for hope, but for cautious optimism as well?

Someone very wise once pointed out that trying to film children and animals was a difficult and often thankless task. So it proved in early August when I was working for the BBC Natural History Unit on a new series called “Seasons”.

We had four days at sea off Cornwall to film Blue sharks. Day one was a weather wash out - lumpy seas, leaden skies, rain showers and high winds. Had a shark turned up in our chum slick we would have struggled to see it let alone been able to get into the water and film it properly. On day two we had an obliging 1.7/1.8 metre shark in our slick off and on for a couple of hours. We got some footage but not enough, and on day three and four the weather and sea state were almost perfect but the sharks declined to put in an appearance. Two days after we left our skipper went back to the same spot with an angler and caught and released six Blue sharks in two hours. Filming animals and children! The show must go on so we’ll have to persevere and hope to find some sharks who don’t want the last laugh.

*I before E except after P.

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