Shark finning and manta fisheries are pressing matters in global marine conservation. Sharks, being apex predators, control the food web below them that, in their absence, stears out of control with cascading effects all along the different food chains.
At the same time and together with manta rays, they are major tourist attractions all around the diving and snorkelling world. However, too little is done to protect them and eradicate the reasons behind their slaughter.
Björn Ericksson, an inspiring, young social scientist, took up the task to bring light into these reasons behind our continued failure to protect these highly valuable animals. Surprisingly, his results just confirm what we have all known for a very long time already:
Communication is the key.
As in so many other areas in the world, be it in business, education, politics, or what ever else shall pass your mind, the key to success is communication. No one can change anything without communicating the message to everyone that needs to hear it for the plan to work.
And this is exactly where Björn identified the major issue with successful and unsuccessful shark protection projects and marine protected areas. Where ever these projects fail to deliver, it is often because of not including the local fishermen into the actual planning. And not only not including them, but not listening to their needs.
Every single one of us needs to feed himself and his family. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is exactly the same with often poor fishermen on tropical islands. Only their situation is often much more desperate than it can ever get for people in the western hemisphere with their social help systems in place. Fishermen are fighting for their family’s survival on a daily basis.
From this perspective, it is far less surprising, if fishermen continue to fin sharks and fish manta rays, even despite MPAs and better knowledge. They simply have no other choice.
Björn points out another, if not even more important reason behind conservation failure: market demand.
Ever since China’s population is getting richer and richer, the demand for shark fins and manta gills is increasing dramatically. Therefore, the most important step in protecting sharks, mantas and other saught after products of endangered animals, such as rhinos and tigers, is to eliminate market demand.
Yes, I know, this sounds like a dream, but it is in fact the only solution we have, which is why we need to start working on it now.
The problem is obvious: Where there is a demand for a valuable and possibly even rare product, prices are skyrocking and therefore make for very attractive business. This goes as far as these businesses turning criminal at some point, just in order to keep the cash flow running.
The solution here is different from the solutions for and with fishermen. Its core is education and awareness; in fact politics, proper marketing and propaganda.
By unmasking products such as tiger penis, rhino horn and manta gills as entirely useless for problems with male libido and general longivity, and thus turning their image from magical to rubish, these animals might actually stand a chance in their battle for survival.
The problem with shark fins is of a different nature, as they are regarded as a symbol of wealth and prestige, a much more resistant public image to overcome. I’m not a lobbist and marketing expert, but I’m sure there are people out there that could actually trigger a change in this perception. The contamination of sharks with toxic substances such as mercury and other pollutants, might be a good starting point.
The interview with Björn on YouTube
But what about the local fishermen and a solution for their problems? What if they render the efforts of marine conservationists pointless, by not adhering to new rules, rules they often simply cannot follow, if they want to survive?
Well, as mentioned above: Listening to their needs during planning AND thereafter, is a very effective step in the right direction. Their needs are simple: Enough money to feed them and their families, is all they really need.
So if everything is so simple, why then do so many MPA projects fail?
Björn Ericksson gives a rather clear answer:
The local fishermen are not given other opportunities of income, or only those that are not feasible because of a wide range of reasons. Reasons can be as simple as having planned the “new” fishing grounds too far away from their villages, thereby increasing travel costs and thus rendering these grounds unprofitable to them.
Now many politicians, developers and scientists believe that tourism can be a part of the solution, by creating sources of income other then shark finning or manta fishing. As a matter of fact, this can be absolutely true. However, this does not always work and the reason is often limited access to this new tourist market, e.g. the village is simply too far away from the hotels, or on a different island, or not close enough to an attractive reef for snorkellers.
Another reason is often the lack of education, be it languages, illiteracy or training in much needed service skills.
Yet again, these things can and should be taken into consideration when planning and creating a new marine protected area.
Of course all of these things cost money. However, not spending this money comes almost certainly at a much higher price.
For example, failure to protect coral reefs and mangroves usually ends in catastrophic loss of human habitat and death during storms. The same holds true for shark and manta fishery that cause the local marine systems to break down and in the cause fail to deliver food and other ecosystem services, ultimately leaving the once happy fishermen to flee their traditional homes for a miserable life of unemployment in the next bigger city.
All of these negative consequences, may it be deteriorating ecosystems, loss of culture and society’s solidarity, as well as loss of natural business capital in form of attractive manta populations and flourishing reefs, can and should be avoided at all costs and by all means.
One day, we might find it useful to live in a thriving and flourishing environment that we share with every other species on this planet. Not because we are their masters and superiors, but because we are a part of the planet’s nature and its delicate balance.
We are not a passenger on the boat called earth, we are a part of it. And if we are not careful, we or another species we kill will become the leak that makes us all sink.
In awareness of our intelligence, let us all become shepards of this planet instead. It’s now or never and giving up is for pussies!