Sunday, June 8, 2008

Taste for expensive soup cuts shark populations around the globe

Feeding frenzy: Taste for expensive soup has thinned shark populations around the globe
By David Fleshler
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
June 8, 2008

Shark kills surfer off Mexico.

Man bitten by shark in New Smyrna Beach.

Austrian tourist dies after Bahamas shark attack.

These events grab the public's attention, but the past few years have been far worse for the sharks.

At the China Pavilion restaurant of Greenacres, a tureen of Dragon Phoenix shark fin soup costs $59.95. At the Silver Pond restaurant of Lauderdale Lakes, the most expensive variety costs $110.

Once served at the banquet tables of Ming emperors, the ancient delicacy has grown so popular that the world's shark populations have been devastated. Driving the market is the rise of the middle class in China.

On the east coast of the United States, where most shark fishing boats operate out of Florida, federal regulators have cut quotas to allow shark populations to recover. Congress is considering a bill to toughen the ban on finning, in which fishermen chop the fins off the live shark and throw it back into the ocean to die.

"Sharks are the biggest mass slaughter of large wildlife happening on the planet today," said Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a conservation group. "Sharks have been around for 400 million years, and we're looking at basically wiping them out in one human generation."

Sharks vs. people
On May 23 at Mexico's Pantla beach, a stretch of sand near Acapulco, a 21-year-old student was starting to surf when a shark attacked and pulled him under. The shark bit off his left hand and bit his leg. Although the surfer was pulled to shore alive, he bled to death.

The attack was the fifth fatal shark attack of 2008. Earlier this year, a shark killed an Austrian tourist on a shark-viewing dive in the Bahamas, a great white killed a surfer off San Diego, a suspected bull shark killed a 16-year-old boy in Australia and a tiger shark killed a surfer off Mexico's Pacific coast.

Meanwhile, 26 to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their meat or fins, said Shelley Clarke, a fisheries biologist who testified before Congress. More than 100 species are classified as threatened, including the basking shark, great white, great hammerhead and spiny dogfish.

This year, the National Marine Fisheries Service temporarily halted fishing for several shark species. It announced a deep cut in the total take of sandbar sharks and several other species. It required fishing boats to bring sharks to the dock with fins attached to improve enforcement of the finning ban.

The restrictions have hit hardest in Florida, which accounts for more than half of the East Coast's commercial shark fishing permits. Last year, the state's fishing boats landed 45,480 pounds of shark fins, less than half the previous year's catch because of a technical adjustment to quotas.

Robert Spaeth, a Madeira Beach shark and grouper fishermen, said the regulations were forcing him to keep some of his boats idle at a time when shark populations are robust.

"The future looks very bleak," he said. "As soon as they start eating people, and the Chamber of Commerce starts screaming, then maybe something will happen. Eat the shark before the shark eats you."

Until the federal cutbacks, Cory Burlew sailed his boat out of Deerfield Beach to catch 30 or 40 sharks a year.

"Some sharks are worth pretty good money," he said. "What I like best about shark fishing is there's something big to pull on that's supposedly ferocious."

At the request of the shark industry, Gov. Charlie Crist asked the U.S. Department of Commerce for disaster relief, saying the restrictions have caused "severe economic hardship." Sonja Fordham, director of the shark program at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, said emergency aid would reward the industry for fighting restrictions that could have saved sharks.

"The industry has filed lawsuit after lawsuit to prevent the implementation of scientific management," she said. "For the most part, the industry won. And now we have the predicted effect, more depletion of the population."

Power food?
Like many foods in Chinese cuisine, shark fin soup holds symbolic as well as culinary significance. Served at weddings and other important occasions, it symbolizes power, prestige and honor.

The soup uses only the fins' cartilage needles, which provide a gelatinous texture but no flavor. Little known among Western diners, it can be found in establishments that cater to Asians.

At Hong Kong Market and Cho A Dong Oriental Food Market, set among a cluster of Chinese and Vietnamese businesses on State Road 7 northwest of Fort Lauderdale, the canned soup sells for $5.95.

The China Pavilion restaurant on Lake Worth Road serves three varieties. Lily Cho, daughter of the owner, said her father had been head chef of a restaurant in New York's Chinatown, where serious restaurants are expected to serve it.

"My father is so traditional he has it on the menu," she said, although she said he may remove it because of the impact on sharks. "When you order it off the menu, it's a special occasion."

Like most Chinese restaurants, she said, her father's serves a combination of real and imitation shark fin. The last time she saw a bowl of authentic shark fin soup was at a wedding in California.

"I was shocked," she said. "I could tell he probably spent over $20,000. Everybody in their bowl had a big scoop."

Fins on the Internet
The world's fin dealers congregate in cyberspace on the international trade site, which lists about 300 fin sellers.

Star Inc., of Hollywood, advertises fins from tiger sharks, makos, hammerheads "and many, many more!!!!...We've got big quantities." Ben Freedman, listed last month as the company's contact person, said in a brief telephone interview, "I'm getting them in the Bahamas and selling them to the Far East." He said he had no time to talk further and could not be reached later despite repeated messages.

Alibaba, partly owned by Yahoo, is a publicly traded Chinese company. Conservationists have called on it to drop the ads.

"Alibaba is the No. 1 platform in the world for this," said Richard Stewart, executive director of the Ocean Realm Society, an environmental group based in New Smyrna Beach, which organized a petition drive. "It's getting out of control. How long do you think this species is going to last in the ocean?"

Alibaba spokeswoman Christina Splinder said the company sees itself as a "neutral marketplace" that doesn't impede legal transactions.

"The trading of shark fins is an issue that honest people can disagree on and there are many cultural perspectives on this issue," she wrote in an e-mail.

The United States outlawed shark finning in 2000, prohibiting fishing boats from taking the fins unless they took the rest of the shark.

Last year, state and federal authorities discovered 91 pounds of shark fins without corresponding carcasses on a boat at Port Canaveral. They sent the fins to Nova Southeastern University's Guy Harvey Research Center in Dania Beach, where executive director Mahmood Shivji has developed a quick genetic identification technique for sharks. He found the fins had come from protected dusky and night sharks. The boat operator, Frank Davis, was fined $38,000.

Congress is considering rules to further protect sharks. The Shark Conservation Act of 2008 would allowing sanctions against countries that permit finning and tighten the finning ban. The bill was prompted by the Coast Guard seizure of a cargo ship with 65,000 pounds of fins, in which charges were dropped after an appellate court ruled the law covered only fishing boats.

Conservationists say finning is a cruel practice that facilitates the mass killing of sharks.

"You can take a small boat and clear out a whole reef very quickly," said Knights, of WildAid. "You waste 90 percent of the animal. Often the animals are still alive when they're dumped back in the water. Enforcing something like this is a bit of a joke. It's impossible to quantify but you're talking about millions of sharks a year."

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Wildwood Preservation Society is a non-profit 501(c)(4) project of the Advocacy Consortium for the Common Good. Click here to learn more.

"it's all connected"

Life, Liberty, Water

Life, Liberty, Water
As climate change and worldwide shortages loom, will people fight over water or join together to protect it? A global water justice movement is demanding a change in international law to ensure the universal right to clean water for all.
By Maude Barlow
YES! Magazine
Summer, 2008

It’s a colossal failure of political foresight that water has not emerged as an important issue in the U.S. Presidential campaign. The links between oil, war, and U.S. foreign policy are well known. But water—whether we treat it as a public good or as a commodity that can be bought and sold—will in large part determine whether our future is peaceful or perilous.

Americans use water even more wastefully than oil. The U.S relies on non-renewable groundwater for 50 percent of its daily use, and 36 states now face serious water shortages, some verging on crisis.

Meanwhile, dwindling freshwater supplies around the world, inequitable access to water, and corporate control of water, together with impending climate change from fossil fuel emissions, have created a life-or-death situation across the planet.

Both Democrats and Republicans have emphasized loosening U.S. dependence on nonrenewable energy resources in their platforms, but neither party gives significant air time to the threats posed by water shortages.

This is not to say that no one is paying attention. In fact, water has become a key strategic security and foreign policy priority for the United States government.

Cut Deals, Carry Water
Corporate interests have pursued schemes to privatize, commodify, and export water for decades. We have seen how this plays out in Canada. For instance, in the late 1990s, Sun Belt Water, Inc., sued the Canadian government under NAFTA because British Columbia banned water exports, preventing a deal that would have sent B.C. water to California. Corporations have also made attempts to ship Canadian water as far as Asia and the Middle East, proposals that fizzled after fierce opposition from public citizens who were beginning to understand the dangers of permanently removing water from local ecosystems and placing it under corporate control.

Now the Pentagon, as well as various U.S. security think tanks, have decided that water supplies, like energy supplies, must be secured if the United States is to maintain its current economic and military power in the world. And the United States is exerting pressure to access Canadian water, despite Canada’s own shortages.

Under the name, “North American Future 2025 Project,” the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) brought together high level government officials and business executives from Canada, the United States, and Mexico for a series of six meetings to discuss a wide range of issues related to the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a controversial and tightly guarded set of negotiations to expand NAFTA. [See related story.]

“As … globalization continues and the balance of power potentially shifts, and risks to global security evolve, it is only prudent for Canadian, Mexican, and U.S. policymakers to contemplate a North American security architecture that could effectively deal with security threats that can be foreseen in 2025,” said a leaked copy of a CSIS backgrounder.

On the agenda for one of two meetings in Calgary were, “water consumption, water transfers, and artificial diversions of bulk water” with the aim of achieving “joint optimum utilization of the available water.”

The water and security connection deepens with the fact that Sandia National Laboratories, a vital partner with CSIS in its Global Water Futures Project, also plays a major role in military security in the United States. While Sandia is technically owned by the U.S. government, and reports to the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, its management is contracted out to Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest weapons manufacturer.

Ralph Pentland, water consultant and primary author of the Canadian government’s Federal Water Policy in 1987, believes that the purpose of these cross-border discussions is to secure sufficient water for Alberta tar sands production in order to ensure uninterrupted oil supplies to the United States. Energy extraction would be far more attractive if a new source of water—potentially from northern Canada—could be brought to the tar sands through pipelines or other diversions. As long as the water doesn’t cross the international border, it is within Alberta’s power to do this.

These schemes to displace water from one ecosystem to another in the service of corporate profit are an environmental problem for the entire planet, which is another reason why water must form a crucial part of any progressive discussion around U.S. dependence on foreign energy resources.

Corporate interests understand the connection and are using it to make their case for private solutions to the water crisis. In language that will be familiar to critics who argued that the United States invaded Iraq not for democracy but for access to oil and profits for corporations, a 2005 report from CSIS’s Global Water Futures project had this to say about water:

“Water issues are critical to U.S. national security and integral to upholding American values of humanitarianism and democratic development. Moreover, engagement with international water issues guarantees business opportunity for the U.S. private sector, which is well positioned to contribute to development and reap economic reward.”

Water for All
Clearly, the powers that be in the United States have decided that water is not a public good but a private resource that must be secured by whatever means.

But there are alternatives.

North Americans must learn to live within our means, by conserving water in agriculture and in the home. We could learn from the many examples here and beyond our borders—from the New Mexican “Acequia” system that uses an ancient natural ditch irrigation tradition to distribute water in arid lands to the International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance in Geneva, that works globally to promote sustainable rainwater harvesting programs.

Conservation strategies would undermine the massive investment now going into corporate technological and infrastructure solutions, such as desalination, wastewater reuse, and water transfer projects. And conservation would be many times cheaper, a boon to the public but not to the corporate interests that are currently driving international water agreements.

At the grassroots, a global water justice movement is demanding a change in international law to settle once and for all the question of who controls water, and whether responses to the water crisis will ensure water for the public or profits for corporations. Ricardo Petrella has led a movement in Italy to recognize access to water as a basic human right, which has support among politicians at every level. The Coalition in Defense of Public Water in Ecuador is demanding that the government amend the constitution to recognize the right to water. The Coalition Against Water Privatization in South Africa is challenging the practice of water metering before the Johannesburg High Court on the basis that it violates the human rights of Soweto’s citizens. Dozens of groups in Mexico have joined COMDA, the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water, a national campaign for a constitutional guarantee of water for the public.

The U.S. and Canada are the only two countries actively blocking international attempts to recognize water as a human right. But movements in both countries are working to change that. A large network of human rights, faith-based, labor, and environmental groups in Canada has formed Canadian Friends of the Right to Water to get the Canadian government to support a U.N. right-to-water covenant. And a network in the United States led by Food and Water Watch is calling for a national water trust to ensure safekeeping of the nation’s water assets and a change of government policy on the right to water.

Such campaigns may have a fight ahead of them, but the vision is within reach: a United Nations covenant that recognizes the right of the Earth and other species to clean water, pledges to protect and conserve the world’s water supplies, and forms an agreement between those countries who have water and those who don’t to work toward local—not corporate—control of water. We must acknowledge water as a fundamental human right for all.

Wildwood Preservation Society is a non-profit 501(c)(4) project of the Advocacy Consortium for the Common Good. Click here to learn more.

"it's all connected"