The Shark Fin debate

~by: Ng Yi Shu~

~picture: Cheong Yaoming~

Two NGOs for shark conservation, Shark Savers and Project: FIN, protested against Singapore’s unwillingness to ban shark fin products, at the Animal Welfare Symposium last Saturday. 

Project: FIN founder Jennifer Lee quoting a WildAid letter in her question to Minister K Shanmugam and the panel at the end of the symposium, protested against trade interests behind the ‘marine life experts’ Hank Jenkins and Dr. Giam Choo Hoo, exposing their conflicts of interest with wildlife trade.
 
Mr Jenkins and Dr Giam had spoken at a recent seminar organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, emphasising that 'shark's fin soup is culturally discriminating'. 
 
The WildAid letter said: 
“Having known Dr. Giam for some time, I don't think he would claim to be a "marine life expert." He is a former vet who was in charge of the bureaucratic aspects of wildlife import and export in Singapore. I believe he still serves on the board of a reptile skin trading company and has served on a CITES committee where he was a tireless advocate against restrictions or controls on trade in threatened and endangered species. 
 
"You would need to ask him who pays his expenses and consultancy now. Whenever I’ve asked him, he wouldn't tell.
 
"To my knowledge, Dr. Giam has never conducted any original research on sharks of any kind nor has he visited any of the shark fisheries to which he refers. At one point, I offered for my colleague, who had done such research, to make him better informed on sharks, and his response was, "Oh no, she knows too much.
 
"Similarly, Hank Jenkins is not a "marine life expert." I believe his expertise is in crocodile farming. He too has been a strong advocate for trade in wildlife and endangered species, such as "farming" tigers.
 
They are, of course, like the shark fin traders they represent, entitled to their opinions, but to suggest they are experts in sharks or marine life is misleading.”
Professor Steve Oakley from Shark Savers Malaysia felt that his presentation at ISEAS was misquoted by the newspapers. 
 
Presenting a summary of his findings to Mr Shanmugam, Professor Oakley questioned Dr Giam Choo Hoo's representation of Singapore on the CITES board as there were conflicting interests. 
 
The main reasons tackling the illegal wildlife trade is ineffective may be due to the fact that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), being a political organisation which uses economic trade as a tool to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, has conflicting trade and conservation interests, Professor Oakley noted. 
 
“Isn’t this like asking the mass murderer what kind of sentence he should get?”, a participant at the symposium asked.
 
Professor Oakley believes that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) should be the appropriate organisation to deal with conservation. 
 
In a conversation with TOC, Patricia Lorenz and Jennifer Lee of the NGOs Shark Savers and Project: FIN explained why they were fighting for their cause. 
 
In their news release titled ‘Feedback from Shark Savers and Project: FIN’, they said that current consumption of shark is unsustainable, threatening shark populations and ocean health by tipping over the ecological scales and destroying the fragile food chain. Sharks are critically important to the health of our oceans and depletion of shark populations has been to shown to negatively impact valuable fisheries and marine habitats. They believe that rampant overfishing of sharks is primarily driven by consumer demand for highly valuable fins – which has led to all 14 of shark species most prevalent in the trade to be classified by the IUCN as near extinction. 
 
In their recommendations, Shark Savers and Project: FIN pressed for the expansion of legislation, namely for the Endangered Species Act to include the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species as it is the most comprehensive, objective global approach in evaluating conservation status. This move will also mean that products from the 14 species of shark which are most impacted by the shark fin trade will be regulated and banned.
 
Shark Savers and Project: FIN also quoted apparent health risks in the consumption of shark fin as one of the main reasons AVA should look into the banning of fins. 
 
A study published by University of Miami found high concentrations of BMAA (β-Methylamino-L-alanine) in shark fins, a neurotoxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases in humans including Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig Disease (ALS). The study suggests that consumption of shark fin soup and cartilage pills may pose a significant health risk for degenerative brain diseases.
 
BMAA was first linked to neurodegenerative diseases in Guam, which resulted in the progressive loss of structure and function of neurons.
 
The shark study found a similar range and even higher BMAA in the fins tested. The new study found levels of BMAA which overlapped the levels measured in the brains of Alzheimer's and ALS victims. Surprisingly, this level fits with the BMAA levels in fruit bats examined in Guam, where ingestion of fruit bats had a link to the severe ALS/Parkinsonism dementia that afflicted many people in Guam.