Archives For Fish

Greenpeace photo of worker and wastewater textile discharge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That trendy shirt or pair of jeans, the underwear we buy these days mostly comes with a “Made in China” label.  When choosing clothing presumably we think first about style and second about price. Can we afford the style and quality? We rarely think about the environmental or social cost of the item, the “true” cost of manufacturing a coveted dress.

We don’t know about the dye that washes into the local rivers where the item is made, the chemicals spreading downstream from manufacturing plants, contaminating water supplies and making local people sick. We want, we can afford, we buy. But should we without knowing how our clothes are made and the damage they do in the process?

Last year, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, Americans spent about $340 billion on clothing and shoes, accounting for 75 percent of the global market. Of that, 99 percent of shoes and 98 percent of clothing was made abroad, where environmental and social laws are less stringent and enforcement of those that do exist is significantly looser.

The trouble is, many of the clothes we wear, particularly the cheapest, are highly polluting to produce at the low cost-point. According to the World Bank, 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, and there are at least 72 toxic chemicals in our water that originate solely from textile dyeing. Of these, 30 cannot be removed.

That’s a real problem for the textile industry: In China, Polluted water causes 75 percent of diseases and over 100,000 deaths annually, the World Health organization has said. Meanwhile, cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average.

Estimates are that 70 percent of lakes and rivers in China are polluted, as well as 90 percent of the groundwater. In all, an estimated 320 million Chinese do not have access to clean drinking water – more than the entire population of the United States.

It used to be that clothing was made close to home, so we knew when a textile mill or garment manufacturer was polluting the local water or air and U.S. mill towns experienced some of the same problems China now faces, with local rivers often fetid and colored by dye. With greater awareness of the hazards, then years of battling, government regulatory authorities set tougher environmental and labor standards to make sure production wasn’t exploitative or damaging to our air and water. Manufacturers were forced to comply, installing capture equipment on smokestacks and treating any wastewater before pumping it into rivers.

But that made clothing more expensive to produce and then with the opening of China in the mid-1970s and the growing availability in the 1980s of cheap labor along with manufacturing capability, most of the production process gradually shifted there. Eventually, environmental and social laws were put in place in China too but often local enforcement is limited and corruption rampant.

That has meant many factories and textile mills have been able pollute at will. When they have been fined for violations, the fines are often insignificant relative to profit. That, and the fact that an abundant migrant labor force comprised of some of the hundreds of millions who previously lived below the poverty line and were willing to work for cheap, meant clothing could be produced at prices that didn’t factor in either the real cost of labor or the environmental damage.

Those costs were left for future generations to cover in health care, clean-up and other forms of support.

The result is that we are all now hooked on the irrationally cheap. Prices on fabric and clothing imported to the U.S. have fallen 25% since 1995, partly due to the downward pricing pressure brought by discount retail chains, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Still, in China, the future is now. While migrant workers, now with a better standard of living, want fair wages and benefits such as health insurance, the Chinese government recognizes that the holy grail of economic growth at the 10 percent plus levels seen over the past two decades is unsustainable if the rampant environmental degradation continues apace.

Unrest has been growing across the country, particularly around perceived labor and environmental violations, with tens of thousands of mostly small protests annually, many of them unreported.

Besides the cost of cleaning up contaminated water, land and air, pollution will cost China billions in additional health care, lost productivity and early mortality, dragging down growth, the government recognizes.  The World Bank in a 2007 report estimated China’s environmental costs at around $100 billion a year, or about 5.8 percent of GDP, including the impact on mortality.

So any way you look at it, those clothes we like to buy in abundance, and have been taught in recent years to purchase and throw away without thought because prices are so cheap and styles constantly new, are a real problem for the environment, for workers who make them and ultimately for China’s economy.

In a report released in December, Greenpeace recounted time spent in two textile industry towns in Guangdong province:  Xintang, the “Jeans Capital of the World,” and Gurao, a manufacturing town 80% of whose economy is devoted to bras, underwear, and other clothing articles.

Greenpeace testing found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from throughout Xintang and Gurao. In one sample, cadmium exceeded China’s national limits by 128 times.

Xintang, known as the “Jeans Capital of the World”, produces over 260 million pairs of jeans annually, equivalent to 60% of China’s total denim production, and 40% of the jeans sold in the United States each year.

Gurao, “the capital of sexy,”  in 2009 produced 200 million bras, or enough for every third woman in China to have one. But this prosperity has come at the cost of the degradation of the local river, the Xiao Xi.

Villagers told Greenpeace that the dirty, fetid river is no longer fit for drinking or laundry. Fish no longer live in the river and people living nearby complain that they must endure the stench from the wastewater. When the river overflows, their yards and homes are flooded by wastewater.

Unfortunately, Gurao and Xintang are not unique, representing just 2 out of 133 textile manufacturing cluster towns where there exists unregulated or at least tolerated hazardous chemical use and release – all in the name of economic growth and jobs.

True, the rise of China over the past few decades has been startling, and the achievements not to be forgotten. In no other time in history has one government accomplished a similar feat: Pulling some 300 million people out of poverty. The questions remain, however, around the price of that transformation and how the government will choose to address this looking forward.

Indeed the 12th five-year plan, unveiled in March, includes provisions for reform that involve working to rebalance China’s Economy and improve livelihoods.  The government is keen to shift the growth model from export and investment driven to domestic consumption drive, and will focus on the quality of economic growth, not just the growth rate itself, perhaps reducing GDP targets to around 7 percent. There will be additional investment in alternative energies and a push toward promoting less-polluting industries, with a shift away from more polluting producers.

As wages rise in China, however, this is a trend that is already underway, with some of the dirtiest factories moving to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam, where regulations are even lighter and costs less. Once again, rather than cleaning the supply chain and charging higher prices to reflect cleanup costs and higher wages, some brands are just looking further south.

Luckily, this is not universally the case. There are retail brands that are looking to improve their own supply chains and influence the industry more broadly.

In March a coalition of retail companies, apparel and shoe manufacturers, fashion houses, non-profits, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a new organization that seeks to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the clothing industry worldwide.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which includes Wal-Mart, Hanes, J.C. Penney, Nike, Gap Inc, H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, and Patagonia, among others, will help to develop improved sustainability strategies and tools to measure and evaluate sustainability performance. The group of thirty organizations began working on this informally last year.

The group announced it was developing a database of the environmental effects of every manufacturer, component and process in apparel production, with the aim of using the gathered information to give the garments a sustainability store.

Part of the problem for the apparel industry is the complexity of the supply chain. There are many bits and bobs that go into producing our clothes and each piece may be produced in a different factory and then assembled in yet another. That means accounting for the environmental impact of any one item of clothing, tracing the zippers, the buttons, the natural fabric, the dyed fabric, is quite a feat.

Still, for the new coalition, tracing the various parts that make up one jacket or pair of trousers is the goal, along with conveying that information to the consumer. The idea is that eventually there is a label that allows shoppers to see how well their coveted item of clothing is produced and learn about its impact on both the planet and people.

And as consumers we all have a responsibility to think about how much and how we consume. Are our expectations around price and how long we use an item of clothing unrealistic?

The campaign against shark-fin soup is building in Hong Kong and perhaps this is a good moment to summarize some of the actions and challenges around educating consumers about this unsustainable dish.

Recently, Legislative Council member, Hon. Audrey Eu, requested the moribund Hong Kong government to clarify its position on serving shark-fin soup at official banquets and to release information about how often the dish was included at state functions.

She also asked the government whether or not it was educating the public about the ecological damage caused by excessive consumption of high-value shark fins, which are often hacked off the still-alive marine animals. The shark body is then discarded in a practice widely condemned for its wastage and banned in U.S. and other waters.

The predictable response from Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau at a Legco meeting on January 12 was that because of budgetary constraints not much shark-fin soup was served at official functions but that detailed information on this was impossible to gather. “We do not think it is appropriate to lay down guidelines to regulate the kind of food to be consumed in official banquets and meals,” Yau said.

Further, Yau hid behind the traditional government line, which is that HK follows CITES, which allows the trade in all 468 shark species (Yau says there are 320), except the three listed in the CITES appendices, Great White, Basking and Whale Sharks. “At present the laws of Hong Kong regulate the trade in shark species in accordance with the CITES requirements,” he said.

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The Hong Kong government showed once again that officials are more concerned with keeping an industry or trade body happy, in this case the Marine Products Association, than in any action against ecological damage or move toward encouraging sustainable fisheries.

Echoing this sentiment, in a recent letter to the SCMP, Robert Jenkins, identified as president of Species Management Specialists and apparently also a consultant to the Hong Kong Marine Products Association, wrote  “There are no valid reasons for Hong Kong’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation to condemn traditional Chinese cuisine simply to satisfy the views of persons and organisations ideologically opposed to human use of marine species for food.”

As justification for this he points again to CITES, which has 180 sovereign states as members and “for 25 years has been the premier international legal instrument identifying wild animals and plant species endangered by trade.” Even for the three listed shark species, Jenkins points out, CITES requires trade to be regulated, not stopped.

The reality is, however, that CITES is primarily a trade rather than a conservation body and as such is inherently political, motivated by issues beyond protection of species. CITES last year at its Doha meeting failed to include a severely threatened shark species, the Scalloped Hammerhead, among its appendices because member states with specific interests were  unable to reach agreement.  Even critically endangered Blue Fin Tuna is not listed by CITES.

Yet the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, has classified 143 shark species as either critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, or near threatened with the risk of extinction. That amounts to 30 percent of all shark species and many of the shark fins that we find in Hong Kong markets actually belong to these.

Still, action against the consumption of shark-fin soup is growing in Asia. Illustrating the reputational risk to companies ignoring the issue, shark conservation organizations were again successful in pressuring a Hong Kong bank to withdraw a shark fin soup promotion. Last summer, following similar pressure, Citibank Hong Kong withdrew a shark-fin soup promotion and asked its employees to avoid the delicacy during work events.

Working together, several marine conservation groups recently launched a campaign against Dah Sing Bank  for announcing it would offer a shark-fin soup banquet for 12 to new borrowers.

After a few days of intense adverse publicity, the bank withdrew the offer. Hopefully, other financial institutions locally will also recognize the reputational risk around promoting or even serving shark fin soup at banquets.

Just to recap the importance, shark populations worldwide are facing massive decline. Scientists estimate that the fins of tens millions of sharks are traded globally.   This is devastating to sharks, which are slow-growing, long-lived, late to reach sexual maturity and produce few young.

In other words, the human appetite for shark fin and other shark products simply cannot be sustained.  The consumption of shark-fin soup is a major factor in declining shark populations, with potentially disastrous impacts on the entire marine ecosystem.

Although shark fins are widely regarded as tasteless, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy mainly because of the high price of the fins.  People eat or serve it mostly as a measure of status and a bowl can cost as much as US$400 a bowl.

Shark fins fetch a high price , while shark meat does not. Fins sold in Hong Kong range from about 90 euros to 300 euros per kilogram while shark meat in European markets fetch 1 euro to 7 euros per kilo, according to a Jan 22 letter to the editor in the South China Morning Post written by Claire Garner, director of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation (www.hksharkfoundation.org).

That means the  wasteful practice of shark finning – the cutting off a live shark’s fins and then throwing the body back to the sea – is highly lucrative.

WWF and other conservation organizations in Hong Kong such as Bloom Association, the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, Green Sense, Greenpeace, Shark Savers and others are working in their own way to draw attention to the need to protect sharks.

WWF has managed to persuade many corporations in Hong Kong such as HSBC, the Hong Kong and China Gas Company, Hang Seng Bank, Swire Properties, University of Hong Kong, Canon Hong Kong to adopt a no-shark-fin dining policy ( http://bit.ly/dtkHA1 ).  Hong Kong Observatory, and 180 primary and secondary schools also have made a similar pledge.

So what can the average person do to promote awareness around the damage shark finning causes our marine ecology? Beyond not consuming shark fin soup yourself, please do ask your companies and trading partners about their own policies.

It is urgent we act against waste and move consumption toward sustainable fisheries before it’s too late!

 

We recently hosted a forum with the Asia Foundation on Philanthropy and Climate change.  We hoped to encourage Asian funders to draw the lines between climate change (something that seems often hard for the individual to grasp) and the more tangible and immediate air pollution, forestry degradation, water scarcity etc.

We also hoped to then get them to think beyond the environment to a wider philanthropic portfolio and to consider the impact of climate change on livelihoods, health, education – even how funders in the arts might get involved to build awareness around the need to act.

Why? We feel that given the enormity of the problem, it’s often hard for the individual funder, the family office foundation, to see how they might act in any way that is impactful.

But what we found was remarkable energy in the room. Rather than despair, we felt that participants left informed and energized by our panelists and keynote speaker, Stephen Heintz of Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has an excellent environment and health, southern China program, managed by Shenyu Belsky.

Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and head of the New York’s NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, provided an overview of climate science – setting the scene for discussion. Dr. Hansen, an advocate for a carbon tax, spoke of our inertia in the face of an emergency, the possible extermination of species, receding glaciers, bleaching of coral reefs, acidification of the ocean, basically that we are a planet out of balance.

Heintz also spoke about urgency, describing climate change as a “planetary threat that knows no bounds.” He emphasized the particular threat in Asia – that of 16 countries facing extreme risk, five are in in this region and they are among the most impacted, low-lying Bangladesh for example.

In all, he said, global warming could cost southeast Asia 6-7 percent of GDP. Clearly, Asia is squarely at the intersection of climate and development and he emphasized the need for new ideas and new ways of thinking, something that accurately reflects current realities and anticipates new needs.

It is easy, Heintz pointed out, to be discouraged by the science, yet philanthropy, government, civil society and the private sector all have roles to play. In reality , it is imperative that we act because, inevitably, climate change will impact every other issue that we are working on.

Global grant-making, Heintz said, has increased dramatically over the past decade yet environmental issues are way behind, receiving only 5 percent of funding. Resources targeting climate change specifically, of course, are far less.

The philanthropy sector, Heintz said, can play a crucial catalytic role, take risk, experiment, support advocacy to change public policy and trigger larger systemic change. Important will be innovative public-private partnerships, helping to develop emerging models of low-carbon prosperity. His was an excellent speech.

Our three panelists, Runa Kahn of Bangladesh’s Friendship, Dorjee Sun of Carbon Conservation and John Liu, an environmental filmmaker and journalist based in Beijing, spoke of the practicalities of working effectively within this context – and they also were inspiring.

Runa spoke about making life possible for the 4 million people living  in impossible circumstances in Bangladesh’s northern chars, John Liu on a massive ecological restoration project in China and showed the results, Dorjee on carbon, community and market solutions for saving forests.

The entire session was expertly moderated by the Asia Business Council’s Mark Clifford who managed to draw together the discussion, keeping an often amorphous and difficult topic moving toward practical solutions and away from fear.

The forum was a private side event to the C40 Climate change conference early this month organized by the Civic Exchange and supported by the Hong Kong government and Jockey Club Charities Trust.

It would be great to hear about other experiences linking climate change with a wider philanthropic portfolio, about nudging funders into action in this arena.

Catch it if You Can

sleclue —  March 25, 2010 — 3 Comments

Our oceans are in deep trouble.  A growing population with an insatiable appetite for seafood has driven exploitation of our seas to such an extent, that some scientists predict a global collapse of fish stocks by 2048, or thereabouts.

Daniel Pauly, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, likens these dire straits to Bernard Madoff’s now infamous ponzi scheme. As our oceans have been plundered and fish stocks declined dramatically we simply moved our efforts to exploit stocks elsewhere.

Pauly’s reasoning is simple:  Madoffs’ scheme required a pool of new investors to generate revenues for past buyers and when these disappeared so did the scheme.  The global fishing industry similarly requires new stocks to continue and when the supply is ultimately exhausted a collapse is inevitable.

The consequences for us all, however, are far beyond the havoc created by Madoff.

Numerous factors contribute to the crisis. Perhaps foremost among these is the combination of increasingly sophisticated technology that can locate all manner of fish and the phenomenal industrialisation of a once relatively benign practice.

As with now intensive land-based food production, the technology and the scale of fishing is almost beyond comprehension. The techniques that now imperil our ocean life range from bottom trawling, which rapes vast planes of the ocean floor, to deployment of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) and its consequent bycatch.

In Charles Clover’s relatively recent documentary ‘the end of the line’, bottom trawling is likened to ploughing a field seven times in one year. Fish, indeed the entire marine environment, simply don‘t stand a chance if we continue as we are.

Is talk of a potential collapse scaremongering? A look at statistics indicates otherwise. In a 2003 paper, Ransom A. Myers & Boris Worm wrote that declines of large predators in coastal regions have extended throughout the global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems.

Part of the problem remains that fishing is heavily subsidised and global regulation is for the moment at least, not a force to be reckoned with. The dramatic decline of the majestic blue fin tuna and many shark species serve as cases in point.

The fate of the Blue Fin was sealed just a few days ago when the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) failed to ban international trade. This unfortunate species now faces extinction in the not-distant future.

Sadly, the short-term gain of a few has once again triumphed at the expense of the environment.  In the meantime, things are as bad if not worse for sharks.

Despite evidence to suggest that many shark species are critically endangered, only five species are protected under CITES. Of those, it is perhaps encouraging that two are banned from international trade, however on the down side it would seem that these are virtually extinct already.  In Hong Kong, which accounts for 52% of global shark fin imports, there is no regulation beyond CITES.

As fish stocks decline we become ever more cunning in hiding the truth as we turn to less attractive species for food.  Rock salmon served in many fish and chip shops in the UK for example is actually dog fish, a species of shark.

As Clover points out in his book, other unappealing species that are ending up on our plates are being creatively recast – black scabbard has become sabre and the increasingly endangered Orange Roughy is now known as empereur.

The problem is deeply worrying – and not just because hundreds of millions of people depend on fish for animal protein, or that fishermen the world over rely on healthy catches for their livelihoods.  Havoc is quite literally being wreaked on an essential resource on which depend for survival.

We are causing significant changes that we don’t yet fully understand to a vast ecosystem that requires balance to provide the benefits we take for granted.

As an example, there have been increasing reports of mass jellyfish swarms. One of the causes commonly cited is industrial-scale fishing.  Since fish prey on jellyfish, it shouldn’t be surprising that a consequence of overfishing is an explosion of these creatures in our seas.

What then is the answer? Aquaculture has increased dramatically in recent years but unfortunately, this practice is not the panacea we might like it to be and in fact has its own issues.

One concern is the widespread practice of raising predatory fish such as salmon as opposed to herbivorous fish such as carp.  A Worldwatch Institute report produced two years ago offers the following startling facts:

  • Farmed seafood, or aquaculture now provides 42% of the world’s seafood supply and is on target to exceed half in the next decade
  • The average per capita consumption of farmed seafood has increased nearly ten fold since 1970
  • Early fish farming raising herbivorous species on vegetable scraps and increased the overall supply of seafood
  • The growth in modern fish farms focused on large-value predatory fish fed on smaller fish is now contributing to a net drain on seafood supply
  • There is a growing scarcity of fish feed.   Today, about  37% of marine fish landings are reduced to fishmeal and fish oil
  • Four fish groups – marine shrimp, marine fish, trout and salmon consume more than half of the world’s fishmeal even though they represent just seven percent of global aquaculture and less than three percent of total seafood production
  • Twenty kgs of feed is required to produce just 1 kg of tuna (it is worthy of note that tuna farming or ranching as it appears to be known, for the most part involves catching juvenile wild tuna which are then caged and fattened with fish protein )

In summary, the Report indicates that despite ongoing improvements in feed ingredients and technologies, the rapid growth of fish farming in recent decades has effectively outweighed any gains in feeding efficiency. Modern fish farming is a net drain on the world’s seafood.

As a fish eater, it’s difficult to find sources of sustainable seafood such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified varieties and blatant mislabelling or creative naming of fish don’t help.

While there are many fish guides around, I for one find them hard to use, given the lack of knowledge of staff in restaurants and supermarkets and the need to identify for example the location of the catch.  Still I use these where I can (iphone apps have been helpful) and am increasing my awareness of locally caught ‘non-endangered‘ seafood.

In this instance, the low-hanging fruit perhaps are species such as blue fin and to a lesser extent yellow fin tuna and farmed salmon, amongst others, that are easier to recognise and so avoid.

Another approach is simply to reduce consumption of the larger long-lived fish with lower fecundity and go for the smaller short-lived species that reproduce rapidly – sardines and anchovies for example.

If chefs can be creative with these smaller species, maybe eating anchovies can become as trendy as blue fin sushi.  The UN FAO points out that consuming longer-lived species such as Orange Roughy, which can reach 200 years in age, means that fish on your dinner plate could have hatched at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte!

But on the bright side, with the Oscar for best documentary going to “the Cove”, perhaps even Hollywood finally has taken note of the plight of marine species.

Films such as “The End of the Line”, “Sharkwater” and “Food Inc.” make it easier for all of us to understand enough to consume more sustainably, ask more questions of those supplying our food and lobby our governments to act.

In the meantime, I look forward to the release of “Oceans “ on Earth day next month – a film that by all accounts promises a breathtaking view of the beauty and power of a valuable resource for which we sadly seem to have little regard.

Fins at sea

I thought that since we were in the midst of Chinese New Year this might be the time to write about shark fin soup and its growing consumption in Asia. Perhaps not understood by many, is that this has dramatic consequences for our oceans, which are already depleted by overfishing.

Over the Lunar New Year, consumption explodes of the pretty tasteless soup, which is made by simmering the fins for up to eight hours with mushrooms, fine dried ham, other seafood in a base of clear chicken stock or water.

Traditionally served at Chinese weddings and other special-occasion banquets, shark fin has surged in popularity as China has become more prosperous, with more than 800,000 metric tons of fin consumed every year. That’s triple the quantity of 50 years ago.

Chinese believe that shark fin soup, which can cost as much as US$200 a bowl, promotes health and prosperity, reflecting the status of the hosts. And whereas in years gone by, families would gather to prepare a simple meal together, for an increasingly affluent population the Lunar New Year has become a time to splurge on expensive and not necessarily tasty gourmet cuisine at restaurants and hotels.

Turtles, abalone, shark fin and birds nest are top of the list of foods families feel compelled to order for their exotic qualities and expense, rather than necessarily for their taste.

The sad reality is, however, that 20 percent of shark species are now threatened, with  an estimated 200,000 killed daily – millions every month – many for their fins alone. Some sharks, like the hammerhead and the great white, have been reduced by upwards of 70 percent in the last 15 years, while others, like the silky white tip, have disappeared from some oceans entirely.

Part of the problem, is the shocking practice of finning, which has been banned by upwards of 60 countries since 2004. Since sharks are large creatures and the meat itself is not particularly valuable, to save space on their boats, fishermen often slice the fins off the live shark on the high seas, tossing the body back into the ocean, where the shark in effect drowns.

This practice is fueled by huge demand. A “set” of dorsal and pectoral fins can fetch as much as $100 for fishermen, and then $700 a kilogram in Hong Kong’s dried seafood stores, the hub of the world’s trade.

Beyond the huge waste in a world where many are hungry and the  cruelty of finning lies the reality that these wonderful and important creatures are disappearing from our oceans yet we can’t live without them.

Sharks and their direct predecessors have been swimming in the world’s oceans for well over 300 million years – long before dinosaurs walked the Earth. The fact that sharks have survived for so long without changing very much is a real tribute to the effectiveness of their anatomy.

According to the Oceanic Research Group, recent studies have shown that sharks are quite sophisticated. Most sharks have an incredible sense of smell. These sharks can detect one drop of blood dissolved in as much as one million gallons of water. Many sharks can detect the extremely minute electrical currents generated by the muscles of swimming fish. Some sharks can sense at a great distance the tiny pressure variations generated by an injured fish struggling to swim. Contrary to popular opinion, most sharks have excellent low light vision, thanks to a mirror located behind the retina. This mirror reflects light through the retina a second time. A shark may have many rows of teeth. When an old tooth breaks or becomes too dull, a new one rotates into place. Are these the marks of an unsophisticated creature?

Perhaps also not well known, is that sharks come in incredible varieties. The largest fish in the ocean is, in fact, the whale shark, reaching about 60 feet in length. The smallest known shark is only a few inches long when fully grown. While many sharks do have conspicuous teeth, many of these animals eat only small invertebrates. Other sharks have no teeth at all, feeding by straining plankton from the water much like the balleen whales do.

Often we hear that sharks are dangerous creatures, perhaps fueled by the film Jaws.  The fact is, you are much more likely to be hit by a car or even struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a shark and there are on average only about four fatal shark attacks a year. In reality, sharks are no more dangerous to people than any other large predators like tigers or lions. Why do we label sharks killers, while we consider lions majestic, magnificent?

And perhaps most importantly, sharks are essential to the ocean ecosystem. Like most top predators, sharks feed on the sick and weak, thereby keeping the schools of fish healthy. Lions and tigers serve the same role in their ecosystems, removing the weaker animals from the herds, and keeping the gene pool strong.

In areas where sharks are significantly depleted, fishermen report serious declines in shellfish populations as other fish species feed on them undeterred.

Despite the threats sharks face, there is not enough action worldwide to protect these majestic creatures. Only three species of shark –  great white, basking and whale – are currently listed under Appendix II under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that trade in their parts is regulated.

Other species – including hammerheads, oceanic whitetip, dusky and sandbar sharks – desperately need the same protection. The U.S. is currently considering submitting proposals to add additional species to the list of sharks protected by CITES.

Among other action to conserve sharks, in Europe, the Shark Alliance – a coalition of NGOs – is working with governments there on regulation. In Hong Kong, Bloom Association (http://bit.ly/cFs4OQ) and WWF are working together to generate market, trade and cultural research that will inform a campaign targeting hotels, restaurants and consumers.

Joint and swift action is needed to protect sharks!