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Marine Life & Conservation

UK Shark Fin Trade ‘dead in the water’

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The government has today signalled the end of the UK’s involvement in the global shark fin trade with an announcement that new legislation will require all imported and exported shark fins to remain attached to the shark carcass and only traded as a whole commodity.

The news has been welcomed by Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation and its supporters including wildlife TV presenter Steve Backshall MBE and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who both endorsed the charity’s No Fin To Declare campaign, calling for a post-Brexit ban of the personal import allowance of shark fins to the UK.

Before Britain left the EU it had been bound by outdated legislation that permits anyone to carry up to 20kg of dried shark fins into and across European borders as part of their personal import allowance. According to Bite-Back, this loophole has been exploited by the shark fin trade to legally ‘smuggle’ fins undetected for decades.

Campaign director at Bite-Back, Graham Buckingham, said: “This news puts the UK at the forefront of shark conservation and represents a further blow to a global industry that is forcing sharks closer to the brink of extinction. We applaud the government for using Brexit to side-step this archaic EU legislation and instead lead the world in the conservation of sharks and the oceans. We hope and believe this announcement will encourage other European countries to impose similar constraints.”

It’s estimated that global fishing fleets hunt and kill 73 million sharks every year. As a result one in four shark species is now either endangered or threatened forcing populations of iconic shark species including great whites, hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and threshers to a tiny fraction of those recorded 50 years ago.

Over the past decade shark fins — used as the title ingredient in shark fin soup — have become one of the most valuable seafood items in the world, a fact the charity says, has created a ‘marine gold rush’ to catch and separate sharks from their lucrative fins.

Shark fin soup is widely regarded as a controversial dish. Not only are the cartilaginous strands from the fins tasteless, fishermen are known to cut the fins off the sharks they catch and throw the rest of the shark overboard to die.

Bite-Back first exposed the personal import allowance loophole in 2015. Alongside the detrimental environmental impact the NGO also highlighted that no other item on the ‘green channel’ list compared in terms of volume or value. In fact a 20kg consignment of fins is enough to make 705 bowls of shark fin soup and has a black market value of around £3,600.

Spain, France, Portugal and the UK all feature in the top 20 shark fishing nations in the world. Remarkably though, for years, the UK has exported around 25 tonnes of shark fins to Spain for processing and onward sale to the Far East.

However, it will soon become illegal to import or export individual shark fins making it extremely costly and inconvenient to buy and sell a product that is contributing to the decimation of vital shark populations.

Wildlife TV presenter and Bite-Back patron, Steve Backshall MBE, said: “Today’s news is a fantastic outcome for shark conservation and the culmination of years of campaigning from Bite-Back. The government’s decision to effectively ban the trade in shark fins will be significant in helping to restore the balance of the oceans. At the same time it sends a clear message to the world that shark fin soup belongs in the history books and not on the menu.”

Support shark and marine conservation at www.bite-back.com

Marine Life & Conservation

Whale world record and the power of citizen science

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A sperm whale has been observed in the Azores archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic ocean over a 34 year time span, setting an observation record in the Atlantic and very possibly the world. The observations over this record-breaking time span were made by a combination of scientists and citizen scientists, showing once again the power of this increasingly prominent branch of science.

34 year record

The female sperm whale “19” was first seen in 1987 in the Azores during the research cruises of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Scientists know she is a female, because she was spotted with several calves over the years. Thirty-four years later she was spotted again by cetacean scientist Lisa Steiner of Whale Watch Azores.

In between she was recorded in 1991, 1994, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2015, 2016 and 2021 by a combination of science and citizen science projects. She has not been seen outside of the Azores, but it is possible that her group has travelled to other parts of Macaronesia, like several other groups have.

CSI of the seas

Steiner, who is based on the Azores and has followed whales around the North Atlantic for 33 years, says: “Whale tails (flukes) are like fingerprints. By photographing flukes and then matching them up like a CSI of the seas, we can trace the movements of the animals. Being able to follow an animal for 34 years is amazing and once again shows the power of long-term datasets.” The significance of such findings goes well beyond mere scientific curiosity, however. As Steiner explains, “hearing the histories of individual whales catches the public’s imagination, because personal stories are much more interesting to the general public than generalisations, leading to increased interest and support. That support is priceless when protections for animals are being considered”.

Lisa Steiner (right) with citizen scientists spotting whales in front of Pico Island, Azores

Death and conservation

One example is whale “3418”, also a sperm whale, who was killed by a high-speed ferry in the Canaries. He had been seen for 15 years in the Azores, beginning when he was still a calf, before making the trip to the Canary Islands. His tragic and premature death is being used to promote speed limits of the high-speed inter-island ferries around the Canaries.

Citizen science gathers valuable data

Citizen science is defined as public participation in scientific research. Outcomes are often advancements in scientific research, as well as an increase in the public’s understanding of science. In nature conservation in particular, international citizen science has become increasingly important as a duel stream of data and funding. An example of this, citizen scientists of Biosphere Expeditions (an international non-profit NGO at the forefront of wildlife conservation powered by citizen science) have worked with Steiner on an annual Azores expedition since 2004 and contributed to this record-breaking fluke dataset.

Sperm whale fluke (c) Lisa Steiner

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, says the NGO “is proud to have contributed a piece of the puzzle to this Atlantic or possibly world record. This shows again how citizen science is part of the solution. This recent achievement is just the latest in a long line of citizen science contributions since our foundation in 1999, such as the creation of protected areas on four continents, amongst many others. Thank you to all our citizen and professional scientist, as well as all the other helpers over the years.”

For more information about Biosphere Expeditions visit their website by clicking here.

Header image: Sperm whale and calf (c) Gabriel Barathieu

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Marine Life & Conservation

Parliamentarians call for ocean-based solutions to climate crisis on World Ocean Day

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A cross-party group of parliamentarians have pledged to be ‘Blue Carbon Champions’, supporting the Marine Conservation Society’s call for a four nation Blue Carbon Strategy, recognising the value of marine and coastal ecosystems in tackling the climate crisis.

Blue Carbon Champions include the Conservatives’ Sally-Ann Hart, Labour’s Kerry McCarthy, Lib Dem’s Lord Teverson and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. The Champions have come together in support of the Marine Conservation Society’s goal to scale up financial and policy support for blue carbon habitats.

In order for the UK to meet its current national and international commitments on biodiversity and climate change by 2030, ocean-based solutions to the climate crisis must be formally recognised and embedded into UK climate change policy. Ambitious action must be taken to rewild and protect blue carbon habitats.

The charity’s recent report in partnership with Rewilding Britain, Blue Carbon – Ocean-based solutions to fight the climate crisis, outlines the importance of ocean-based solutions in helping the UK to reach its goal of net zero by 2050, and 2045 for Scotland. By protecting and rewilding marine ecosystems, blue carbon stores will have increased capacity and ability to store carbon.

The report called on the UK Government and devolved administrations to develop a comprehensive four nation Blue Carbon Strategy focusing on three key action areas:

–        Scaling up marine rewilding for biodiversity and blue carbon benefits

–        Integrating blue carbon protection and recovery into climate mitigation and environmental management policies

–        Working with the private sector to develop and support sustainable and innovative low-carbon commercial fisheries and aquaculture.

The significant role of the world’s forests in helping to reduce carbon emissions has been formally recognised through numerous initiatives and reforesting projects intended to keep carbon locked into the world’s forests on land. The Marine Conservation Society wants to see the same support for ocean-based solutions.

The charity’s report is supported by the results of a recent poll, carried out by nfpSynergy, which found that 59% of those surveyed recognised the important role that a healthy ocean plays in regulating our climate and reducing climate change. The ocean’s vital role in fighting the climate crisis is recognised through the report, and by the public, and the group of cross-party Blue Carbon Champions shows that policymakers are now listening and taking action.

International Environment Minister, Zac Goldsmith: “The world is finally waking up to the vital role that nature, including ocean habitats, can play in the fight against climate change. So I warmly welcome the focus of fellow parliamentarians on this all-important issue.

“Through the UK-led Global Ocean Alliance, we are building international support for a significant expansion of marine protected areas. As the hosts of the G7 and climate conference COP26 this year, we are pressing for increased investment in nature-based solutions to tackle climate change, including coastal ecosystems that will also help make communities more resilient in the face of climate change.”

This World Ocean Day, the Marine Conservation Society’s Blue Carbon Champions are highlighting the critical role the ocean plays in fighting the climate crisis, and calling for urgent action from the UK Government ahead of COP26.

Sally-Ann Hart (Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye): “On World Ocean Day, I’m calling for the protection of our seas to be a top priority in our battle against climate change. Ahead of COP26, we have a window of opportunity to turbo-charge efforts to rewild our waters and effectively manage our protected areas, to safeguard coastal livelihoods, restore blue carbon habitats and reduce emissions on our path to net zero.”

Kerry McCarthy (Labour MP for Bristol East): “If we are to achieve net zero emissions, we can’t just focus on technological solutions and changing behaviour; we also need to promote natural carbon solutions, and that means recognising the immense value of our seas and blue carbon habitats like coral reefs, seagrass and kelp.

“This Government has been talking for a long time about ocean preservation, but we are far from achieving the effective network of Marine Protected Areas around the UK that we need. Now is the time for the Government to invest in nature-based climate solutions and implement an ambitious Blue Carbon Strategy.”

Caroline Lucas (Green MP for Brighton Pavillion): Any strategy for addressing the climate and nature crises must account for our marine environment. The UK’s saltmarshes and seagrass beds are absolutely vital, not just for biodiversity but for storing carbon too. However, there is currently no plan to protect and restore them.

“The Prime Minister says we can’t afford dither and delay, yet the health of our ocean continues to decline. The Government urgently needs to develop an ambition Blue Carbon Strategy to put our ocean on a path to recovery.”

To read the Marine Conservation Society and Rewilding Britain’s report, please visit the charity’s website. You can also find more information about the cross-party Blue Carbon Champions.

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