Wednesday, 17 February 2016

More Fisheries Pseudoscience

Another piece of shark fisheries propaganda has been published. Shark fisherman David Shiffman now claims it to be scientific fact, that most shark scientists believe that shark fishing and shark finning are the best ways to “manage” sharks, when done sustainably. The fact that most shark scientists work for the fishing industry is omitted. 

What true scientist would condone shark finning when it involves the waste of 95 percent of the shark, in a protein starved world? Shark finning has been documented to be responsible for the 25% of shark species currently threatened with extinction, but a little known fact is that the United States is the seventh worst shark finning nation. The paper even affirms that it was the shark fisheries scientists who were the most likely to be in favour of sustainable shark fishing as opposed to outright protection for sharks.

At about the same time as this paper was announced in the news, The Global Strategy for the management of sharks and rays (2015 to 2025) summarized their plan thus : 
“This Global Strategy aims to dramatically alter the current trajectory of shark and ray decline by promoting the protection and recovery of the most endangered species, advancing the understanding and conservation of all species and their critical habitats, and ensuring that the fisheries, trade and demand for these species shift from overexploitation towards sustainability.” (note 1)

When stated in context, one can see where working towards sustainable fishing practices is beneficial when the current practice is chronic overfishing. What is different about Shiffman's paper, is that it seeks to use the authority of science to manipulate public opinion to support shark fishing, and to weaken the efforts of shark advocates to protect them in other important ways. The very worrying point that shark meat is increasingly toxic due to the accumulation of poisons, including mercury, making sharks unfit food, is not even mentioned. The findings of a dangerous depletion of sharks by overfishing has been echoed every time an intensive global study on shark and ray depletion has been done.

NOAA (2011) itself states:
“The law calls for the United States to pursue an international ban on shark finning and to advocate improved data collection (including biological data, stock abundance, bycatch levels, and information on the nature and extent of shark finning and trade). Determining the nature and extent of shark finning is the key step toward reaching agreements to decrease the incidence of finning worldwide. “

In October 2014, in an article in the journal “Fisheries” Shiffman made another effort to give the ring of authority to fishing sharks, this time by promoting shark sports fishing in Florida. Though both bird fighting and dog fighting are illegal in Florida, he had no qualms about promoting the “fighting” and killing of sharks. 

Based on the findings that in French Polynesia, the biggest shark sanctuary in the world, one shark can be worth over 2 million dollars in its lifetime through shark diving, he recommended that Florida's sharks were similarly worthy through “catch and release,” which he argued was a good way for the state to make money!

Yet, for one shark to earn 2 million dollars for Florida, it would have to be fished 4000 times. This is calculated by dividing 2,000,000 dollars by 500 dollars—which is an average price charged by shark fishing charters to go out and catch a shark. The possible effects on the lives and biology of the sharks living there, as a result of being repeatedly “fought” nearly to death at this intensity, was not a subject that concerned him.

When questioned about it, it became clear that he had not even thought about the mathematics, though math is an important tool for other scientists. Nor could he come with any argument to back up his position. 

Sharks are not trout. They are large animals that have to swim continuously forward just to keep an adequate supply of oxygen moving over their gills, and their strong horizontal undulations are like a heartbeat, a powerful automatic motion they cannot stop. Their desperate efforts to escape death while pulling with so much force against a big shark hook piercing their faces or internal organs, can cause serious internal and facial injuries. And as any wildlife rehabilitator soon learns through experience, serious injuries to wild animals are usually fatal without the benefit of treatment and supportive care.

Further, examination of Shiffman's own data reveals that the near threatened blacktip shark is the most frequent species caught, and its survival rate from catch and release fishing is one of the lowest of all species shown. Blacktips and the endangered great hammerhead showed “high physiological disruption and low survival following release.” (note 2) In contradiction to this information, he states many times that the sharks are released “unharmed.” 

It is now a matter of record that industry will deliberately support a political platform for favoured, and often paid researchers, to influence public opinion. This was done, for example, by the tobacco industry and the oil industry.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce (NOAA), two million, seven hundred thousand sharks were caught by sports fishermen in the U.S.A. in 2011. Since those were only the killings that were reported, this figure could be low compared with the true numbers killed if the toll from private boats that were not reported, were added in. 

The fishing industry is a multi-billion dollar power that has taken control of both the wild fish populations, and the way these animals are viewed by the public. The result is that irregardless of available facts, their conclusions are always in favour of fishermen, and not “fish,” a word which fisheries will apply to all marine animals, including sharks, whales, and turtles.

Another example of unsubstantiated claims used to support the fishing industry is the Rose paper which sought to give scientific authority to the old tale that fish don't feel pain. Though Rose has never done a study to prove his allegations, and though his argument applies to all animals except man and possibly the great apes, and though it was published in a fishing journal and not a neurological journal, it received so much publicity that people got the idea that science had really proven that fish were too simple-minded to feel pain. 

Yet at the same time, other researchers had learned that fish have cognitive skills that rival those of birds and mammals, and they are likely conscious. Veterinarians who work on them systematically use pain relief, and have said that they found fish to be more sensitive than birds. It is more logical to believe those who treat and look after fish, than those who kill them.

Scientists have a duty to humanity and the search for objective truth, to remain open-minded. Arguments against established ideas are welcomed when they are based on evidence and logic, but when they are based on political agendas which are not supported by evidence, they fall under the definition of pseudo-science. 

note 1 : This was the result of a collaboration between the Shark Specialist Group of IUCN, and scientists from the major conservation organizations, following the SSG study, published last year, which found that 24% of sharks and rays are in danger of imminent extinction.

note 2 : According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, great hammerheads are endangered, and blacktip sharks are near threatened.