[Coral-List] Fwd: New blog post: have you heard the good news about shark populations?

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Fri Mar 9 03:47:19 EST 2018

     Thank you for this good news!!  I am among the many who had not heard
this.  Indeed, it is a breath of fresh air to hear about shark fisheries
which appear to be well managed.  Three cheers for California and the US
east coast!  There have been people who've said that it is near impossible
to manage sharks well enough to have them recover while exploitation
continues.  So this report that they can recover during well-managed take,
that's very encouraging.  I very much like your explanation of why it is
important to know about the good news as well as the bad news.  I very much
appreciate that the Ocean Optimism movement isn't downplaying the problems,
but is playing up solutions and encouraging people to do something
positive.  I think that's good.

       The following is too long, so a few executive summary points:
     The bias towards negative stories is not only in science, it is also
in the press, and is largely driven by the public being more interested in
those sorts of stories, so the blame ultimately falls at the feet of the
      Scientists need to tell the good as well as the bad, and let the
chips fall where they may.  If more of reality is bad than good, then more
of the information scientists will be putting out will be bad.  As long as
good stories are not suppressed or ignored, reflecting reality is the
business we're in.  We have to live with reality.  But when ways of fixing
things are discovered, that news needs to be broadcast far and wide, so
others can learn from successes.  I'm all for that.
       The sharks you're talking about aren't coral reef sharks.  Coral
reef fisheries are probably the most difficult fisheries in the world to
manage.  To my knowledge, no coral reef fisheries anywhere in the world
have ever been well managed (above MSY) due to conventional fisheries
management.  Fishermen hate government restrictions, and fight them all the
time.  Fishermen hate MPAs.  If they don't want MPAs, then let someone
demonstrate how well conventional fisheries management works on a coral
reef fishery, and let the fishermen support good, effective conventional
fisheries management on coral reefs.  If they don't, they're going to end
up with more MPA's, because those are the tool of last resort, when nothing
else works.  And they are mainly used for conservation, any improvement of
fisheries is a happy win-win situation.

      The interest of the media in bad news over good news reminds me of
when I checked out the reefs of Cozumel, Mexico after Hurricane Gilbert
about 1988.  News reports were widespread about how Cozumel had been hit by
one of the strongest hurricanes ever.  One story said the reefs would have
been severely damaged.  I got there, and damage was light almost everywhere
(reefs are on the west side facing the mainland nearby, not enough distance
to build the largest waves).  The dive industry wanted the news to get out
that the reefs were not badly damaged, since divers had stopped coming and
diving was the lifeblood of their economy.  We wrote a press release and
distributed it.  No media picked it up.  Gradually the divers came back.
The press bias is probably because the public is far more interested in bad
stories than good stories.  The media is just following what the public
wants.  As Pogo in the cartoon used to say, "We have met the enemy, and he
is us."
      This sort of bias also reminds me that not every thing about climate
change is bad.  Farming should improve in high latitude areas.  The Arctic
Ocean will be open for shipping, greatly shortening the shipping distance
between Europe and Asia.   Oh, and humans release a LOT of aerosols, like
SO2, which actually act to REDUCE temperatures.  SO2 in particular is very
nasty stuff for humans and there is a high price to pay for air pollution
in cities such as in China and India (and most industrialized countries
more in the past than present), in health care costs, lost working days,
etc etc.  BUT, it does reduce temperatures.  And my favorite, sea level
rise might benefit some corals on reef flats.  Corals on reef flats are
limited by the lack of "accommodation space", that is water depth, they are
limited by how low the lowest tides go.  One problem with this is that reef
flats that have lots of sediment and sediment on the shoreline will have
larger waves on the reef flat at high tide, which will mobilize sediments
and that's bad for coral.  But many reef flats (such as on atolls and
desert coasts) have little or no terrestrial sediment.  Another is that the
sea level rise is way way slower than corals can grow, it would be more
helpful to reef flat corals if the rise was faster.  Finally, most corals
may be killed by high temperature bleaching long before we could detect any
increase in coral cover.   In any case, the fact that there are a few tiny
possible bright spots in climate change doesn't change the fact that the
overwhelming effects will be quite negative.
      For quite a while, most people predicting the effect of climate
change on coral reefs have made their predictions without raising the
possibility that corals might acclimate and/or adapt to temperature
increases.  Initially hard evidence on whether they could or not was not
available, and prediction of the effects of warming on corals is vastly
simpler if they can't.  Plus people didn't want to enable deniers saying
"there is nothing to worry about, they can adjust fine!"  The fact that
corals can adjust some is necessitated by the fact that bleaching threshold
is always just a degree or so above the mean summer maximum temperature and
so varies considerably from one place to the next.  Finally there is a
study looking at this (Bay, 2017), which finds that if future warming
follows one of the two lower possible routes they can adjust, but if it
follows one of the faster routes they can't adjust fast enough.  But people
who suggested that they may be able to adjust were ignored or shouted down
for quite a while.
      It also reminds me of a story of sea turtles.  Sea turtle species
have been listed in the US as threatened or endangered, depending on the
species.  They have been protected very effectively several places, and
there is hard evidence (graphs of numbers of nesting females over time) of
increases in sea turtles over time in some places where they are
protected.  In Hawaii, they are completely protected, but I'm not sure if
any of the other recovering populations are recovering while still being
fished in a controlled manner.  I'm suspicious that maybe all the
recovering populations may be fully and effectively protected, but I don't
know.  Maybe a turtle expert can fill us in on that.
      For endangered species like some sea turtle species, it may not make
sense to allow exploitation to continue during the early stages of
recovery, you want to get them out of endangered status as fast as you
can.  Because if there are any mistakes in calculating what take can be and
still have recovery, you could end up having them continue to decline to
extinction, and there are many uncertainties in estimating allowable take.
Even full legal protection does not always suffice, Monk seals in Hawaii
are at very low numbers and continuing to decline towards extinction in
spite of full protection.  There are no guarantees, and a precautionary
approach may be warranted, since extinction is forever.  Fishermen are
generally not fans of the precautionary rule.
      I'm trying to provide some context, which I think is important.  If
the only message is "sharks are recovering!!" (and your title doesn't say
that this only applies to a minority of populations and no reef sharks)
that message is a cherry-picking exercise, not in the least because most
shark species and populations are not recovering.  Are they?  If they are,
that is indeed HUGE news, broadcast it far and wide.  US waters are a tiny
part of the global ocean, the US cannot protect the world's sharks.  So
while this is good news and a ray of hope, and a good example of what can
be done and how to do it (all very good things) we as scientists need to
tell the full story, all sides, the "good, the bad, and the ugly."  That
applies to the gloom stories as well, they need to be balanced by the good
news stories, so I think your story, and the story of some turtle
populations recovering, are important, not just for balance and context and
completeness, but mainly for, as you say, demonstrating that good
management works and here are examples of how to do it.
      That said, none of California's sharks and none on the east coast
north of Florida, and none in your article are coral reef sharks.  We're
primarily concerned with coral reefs on this list.  Most of the world's
coral reefs are not located in developed countries, none are located in
California, and almost all of the US east coast doesn't have coral reefs
(only the southern part of Florida).  The conditions on most coral reefs
and in the human societies that exploit them are very different from those
in a rich country, and very different from pelagic ecosystems (I'm guessing
that some of the California and east coast sharks might be pelagic).  Most
coral reef fish are much more site-attached than pelagic sharks, though
reef sharks have larger home ranges than most reef fish.  Further, the
methods of good fisheries management that can work in the USA will not work
on most of the world's coral reefs.  Coral reef fisheries are not
industrial fishing with large profits for a relatively small number of
capital-intensive industrial fishing operations, rather they are almost
always subsistence or artisinal fishing for food for the fishermen's
families or very small scale selling.  The diversity of fish species fished
is through the roof, and there is no money for gathering data or analysis
or management.  Fish are landed along thousands of miles of shoreline, not
in large ports.  Management of coral reef fisheries is more difficult than
shark fisheries in developed countries, though in principle at least, shark
fisheries in developed countries should be more difficult than many
fisheries due to the late maturation and small number of pups.
      Another point is that because fishermen want to fish and don't want
regulation (since they make money from fishing), they usually resist at all
costs additional regulations when the evidence indicates that more
regulation is needed to get up close to MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield),
and the minute stocks start to improve they want to open the fishery.  The
pressures can be enormous.  Someone said that federal marshals are now
stationed at some fisheries management meetings in the US because of the
danger of fights breaking out.  Big money is at stake in developed
countries.  In Hawaii, turtle populations have been increasing for some
time now and last I knew had not leveled off.  The Fisheries Council there
has called for them (green turtles, Hawaii population) to be de-listed from
the Federal Endangered Species Act.  Why do they care?  Because fishermen
would like to take them and make money, why else?  They would still be
protected by the state, so if they are taken off the Endangered Species
Act, what would the Fisheries Council's next target be, the state
protection?  I don't know if there are good estimates of what the original
populations were like in Hawaii, but in the Caribbean there are historical
records reporting that there were masses of turtles in places so thick you
could practically walk on their backs.  Which is a lesson for us all,
called "shifting baselines."  None of us working on coral reefs had any
idea how abundant reef sharks are on uninhabited islands and reefs, until a
raft of reports started coming in.  Improvement is great, but if it is the
increase from 1% of the original population to 5%, there is still a very
long ways to go and may call for pretty drastic measures.
       I'd point out that if I'm reading some of your graphs correctly, the
sandbar shark graph shows populations going down the last several years.
In Fig 4, the top panel the last two data points are way back down, and the
last point is near where the graph started.  Maybe looking at those is
cherry-picking, or maybe there is a new downward trend, only time will
tell.  The lower panel looks great, as does Fig 2.
       Palau manages its sharks with a complete fishing ban, because they
have a shark diving industry that makes vastly more money off of tourists
than fishermen would make selling sharks in the market.  That doesn't
involve conventional fisheries management.
       I personally am not aware of a single case in which conventional
fisheries management has been applied to coral reef fisheries and has been
successful.  Many MPAs have been created at least on paper, and have been
documented when they are well-enforced to increase fish stocks (but
evidence they increase total fish catch is slim to non-existent).  Most
aren't well-enforced, resistance is very high, particularly among people in
developed countries, most famously people like Hilborn.  But temperate
fisheries are very different from coral reef fisheries, as are most of the
human societies associated with them, and one size doesn't necessarily fit
all.  As Hilborn points out, MPAs should work best with species that are
site-attached, and that fits coral reef fish certainly better than
pelagics, and maybe for some temperate shore fish and groundfish, etc
(though another viewpoint is that for wide-ranging fish you simply need a
much larger area).  Florida seems to me an excellent example of a developed
area with coral reef where a standard stock assessment of 35 species of
piscivores provided hard evidence that some were overfished (studies by
Ault et al 2005), and yet I've never heard or read of any of the
conventional type fisheries management measures being implemented there for
coral reef fish or any recovery of those species.  But that's just a
statement of ignorance, I live about 7500 miles as the planes fly from
Florida and am not familiar with the current situation there on that
topic.  If someone can inform us that would be great.  On this, I'd love to
stand corrected, I'm cheering for good management.  The state of Florida,
to its credit, did fully protect Goliath Grouper, no take allowed, and they
have rebounded amazingly well.  There is a coral reef success story for
you!!  Optimism!! Granted, now some fishermen say that they don't need
protection any more, and advocate removing the protection.  Obvious what
the result of that would be.  There is now also a stock assessment for
coral reef fish in Hawaii that assessed 19 species in the Main Hawaiian
Islands (Nadon et al, 2015).  They found 9 species were overfished.  The
study has been expanded to 27 species.  Sounds like the state and Fisheries
Council are trying to figure out what to do.  I hope they do something to
get the overfished stocks up to MSY.
       In Hawaii, at one point the concern with shark attacks was such that
the state had a shark eradication program, they put out long lines of
baited hooks on the reefs, and were successful at killing 4,668 sharks
(Wetherbee, 1994).  Never mind that almost all the shark attacks are by
Tiger sharks, particularly the lethal attacks, and the eradication program
removed 1455 sand sharks, 154 blacktip reef sharks, 277 gray reef, 554
tiger sharks and a variety of others. There is no evidence of a decline in
shark attacks as a result of this program.  This is a good example of what
I call bad management.  But surely wildly popular at the time.
Understandably, public mood there is not friendly towards sharks when
someone gets killed.  But they seemed to throw out the baby with the bath.
       My understanding is that more than 15 years ago NOAA NMFS accepted
the Fisheries Council in Hawaii's recommendations each year to increase the
allowed take of endangered sea turtles in the swordfish fishery until it
reached 900 a year.  Then some NGO decided they couldn't stand it any more,
and sued NMFS (the Fisheries Council can't be sued because they are a
private organization, but they have political power such that few wish to
cross them) and won in court.  To my knowledge NMFS continues to be under
court order.  The court ordered the closure of the swordfish fishery for 2
years, and only opened it after the Council recommended and NMFS
implemented a wide range of management actions to limit the take.  The
allowed take is now less than 10 turtles per year per species (forgot
exactly what it is, differs between species) and most years that limit is
not reached.  That could have been done for years before the court ruled,
instead of allowing up to 900 takes a year.  Surely the NGO won in court
because the 900 take was an egregious violation of the US Endangered
Species Act, the law of the land.  Council got religion now, they have
several great programs to help sea turtles in a variety of places, some
outside the US.  Wonderful!  There is a published paper that documents the
capture of Fisheries Councils by the fishing lobby in the USA (Okey,
2003).  The law allows conflicts of interest that would put you in jail in
a federal agency, but the fisheries councils are just "citizens advisory
boards" so it doesn't apply to them.  Mind you, by law they are well funded
by the federal govt and have money to hand out to local agencies, who might
be risking loosing that money if they oppose them.  In practice they are a
private special interest group.  Private people giving money to local
government people in order to get something they want from that
government.  Conflict of interest allowed by law.
     To sum, for some time I've thought that if fisheries people want to
avoid complete protection of species and closures like MPAs, they need to
get good fisheries management in place and demonstrate that it works.  This
new info is very valuable in demonstrating that it can be done with sharks,
at least in a developed country in temperate waters.  If fishermen don't
like MPAs, then they better swallow what they consider the bitter pill of
good fisheries management based on the best available information, instead
of endlessly fighting tooth and nail against any and all regulations.  Or
they can end up with MPA closed areas, and fisheries closures like the
Hawaii swordfish.  Mind you, I have sympathy with fisheries scientists,
they don't control fishermen or government and can't snap their fingers to
get good management.  There are bunch of people working on better ways to
manage coral reef fisheries, and they are making progress.  I will cheer as
loudly as anyone as progress is made, it is certainly not easy.  Getting
some non-reef shark populations to recover is great progress.  We need more..
     American Samoa recently "amended" the shark ban regulation there so
that now only possessing shark fins without carcass is illegal (matching
the federal regulation).  Unlimited shark take is once again legal.  To my
knowledge, there are no other limits on shark fishing there, like bag
limits or closed seasons, other than a few MPA's with questionable
enforcement, and all scuba spearfishing is banned.  I know of no
information that the stock is well managed, but there is a paper published
in the peer-reviewed literature (Nadon et al, 2012) demonstrating that they
are at 4-8% of the level they would be without humans (well below MSY which
is at about 30%), and another that shows that the dearth of big fish is a
fingerprint of overfishing when small fish are as abundant around people as
in uninhabited areas (as they are in American Samoa), since they are
controls for human effects other than fishing, only fishing selectively
removes the largest fish (Williams et al, 2011).  The big fish ban has only
been in effect something like 3 years, not enough time for stocks to even
begin recovering (and there is likely some illegal take that may be enough
to keep them overfished.)
      I've pointed out that air and water pollution in the US are better
than they used to be, and London no longer has the "fog" of smoke from
burning coal in fireplaces that caused thousands of deaths at one point.
When countries are in the early stages of developing their industrial
economies like China and India are now, they use cheap coal to develop
quickly, but as they become prosperous, the middle-class citizens start
pushing for a cleaner environment, they don't want to die or be sickened by
toxic pollution in their air and water, and governments respond to that
pressure and the air and water gets cleaned up.  I see that as a positive
story that is very optimistic.  I read that this works better when citizens
have more power over their government, and when the middle class is
larger.  But I also know that environmental battles will continue forever,
because you can make more profit if you don't spend money and effort
cleaning up your pollution (and on the other hand citizens don't want to be

      Cheers,  Doug

Ault, J.S.; Smith, S.G.; Bohnsack, J.A. 2005. Evaluation of average length
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Bay, R. A. et al. 2017.  Genomic models predict successful coral adaptation
if future ocean warming rates are reduced.  Science Advances 3

Fenner, D. 2016.  Criticism of marine protected areas by fisheries
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Fenner, D.  2014.  Fishing down the largest coral reef fish species.  Marine
Pollution Bulletin. 84: 9-16.

Fenner, D. 2012.  Challenges for managing fisheries on diverse coral reefs.
Diversity 4(1): 105-160.

Fenner, D.  2012.  Reef flat growth: comment on “Rising sea level may cause
decline of fringing coral reefs.”  EOS 93 (23): 218.

Field et al 2011.  Rising sea level may cause decline of fringing coral
reefs.  EOS 92 (33): 273-280.

Nadon, et al. 2015.  Length-based assessment of coral reef fish populations
in the Main and Northwestern Hawaiian Island. PLoS One: 1-19,

Nadon et al. 2012.  Re-creating missing population baselines for for
Pacific reef sharks.  Conservation Biology 26: 493-503.

Okey, T. A.  2003.  Membership of the eight Regional Fishery Management
Councils in the United States: are special interests over-represented?
Marine Policy 27: 193-206.

Wetherbee, Lowe and Crowe.  1994.  A review of shark control in Hawaii with
recommendations for future research.  Pacific Science 48 (2): 95-115.

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central and west Pacific.  Journal of Marine Biology 2011, 1-14.

On Thu, Mar 1, 2018 at 2:17 AM, David Shiffman <david.shiffman at gmail.com>

> Only bad news about shark populations gets shared, so I wrote a blog post
> highlighting some underreported good news. It's all tied into the
> #OcenOptimism movement.
> Please give it a read if you're interested.
> http://www.southernfriedscience.com/have-you-heard-the-good-
> news-about-shark-populations-shark-population-increases-are-
> cause-for-oceanoptimism/
> Sincerely,
> --
> *David Shiffman, Ph.D. *
> Marine Conservation Biologist and Science Writer
> Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver,
> B.C.
> *e: *david.shiffman at gmail.com | *t: *@WhySharksMatter
> <http://twitter.com/#!/WhySharksMatter> |
> *b: *Southern Fried Science Blog <http://www.southernfriedscience.com/> |
> *cv:*
> *Online CV <http://DavidShiffmanCV.com>*
> _______________________________________________
> Coral-List mailing list
> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list

Douglas Fenner
Contractor for NOAA NMFS Protected Species, and consultant
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

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