In conversation with the Shark Fin Godfather

Yesterday I had the most extraordinary conversation with a man who’s a guiding influence on the fate of the remains of our wild planet. Unfortunately it’s not a good influence.

I did a story on him in today’s Times, but the amount of space available really couldn’t do justice to the wonder that is Dr Giam Choo-Hoo. Dr Giam is a member of the UN committee that advises nations on whether or not to control – or in some cases ban – the trade in endangered species. In that role he’s supposed to use his expertise to give scientific guidance, but Dr Giam’s got a different take on what the job’s about.

“I’m elected by the Asian region I will tend to want to help them out where I can,” he told me. And he went on to say that because Shark fin Soup is the number one most prestigious thing to serve at a big event in China, Chinese people do not want it banned, and therefore he campaigns for that result.

The UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is pretty clear that members of the Animals Committee do not represent their region but should be selected as individual experts, but that doesn’t bother Dr Giam. Why not? Because CITES, unlike any other multilateral environmental convention like the WHO or FAO, does not have any rules against conflicts of interest.

When I put this oddity to Dr Giam he scoffed. “There is no such thing as a person without an agenda. We’ve all got an agenda.”

True enough. But you need to be sure that everyone has declared those agendas, right? Not according to Dr Giam. I asked him about his links to the Shark Fin & Marine Products Association (recently rebranded the Marine Products Association) and curiously he didn’t want to either confirm or deny. He wouldn’t even talk about the crocodile skin trading outfit he’s on the board of (Heng Long International). He likened it to my asking him if he was divorced, or how many children he had.

As a result, the good doctor did not dispute it when I asked if his long-running campaign of  technicalities, procedural complaints and stalling for time had been designed to keep sharks off the CITES listings. (Bear in mind that at the most recent Conference of Parties in 2010, the proposal was to monitor the trade in four new types of shark not ban it.) It’s par for the course, according to him.

“You’re going round and round,” Dr Giam complains as I circle back once more to discover if he’s really serious, that we should accept his ‘scientific advice’ without being told of his professional interests and affiliations.

But the prize for circular thinking goes to the vet from Singapore.

“Based on CITES itself only one shark is endangered and that is the sawfish,” Dr Giam tells me. ” The rest are not endangered so of the rest anybody can eat anything they want of any species they want. ”

IUCN and its Red List, probably the world’s most respected inventory of wildlife endangered by man, is not to be trusted he says, because it is at heart an NGO. They list 68 species that are endangered or critically endangered, fourteen of which are regularly found in shark fin soup. But Dr Giam prefers to trust in the decisions of CITES, the very body whose decisions he has campaigned to pervert.

Neither the CITES secretariat or any other sane marine scientist will pretend that the CITES appendices are a definitive listing of which species are endangered, but apparently it suits Dr Giam’s agenda (private though that may be).

I could go on – in fact I might even post the whole interview if anyone’s interested – but I think the staggering point here is not that Dr Giam is trying to keep shark fin trading entirely unrestricted in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that it is on the verge of causing the extinctions of several species. After all, though he might not confirm (or indeed deny) it to me, Dr Giam has on occasion introduced himself as a representative of the shark fin industry.

No, the bit that takes my breath away is UN representatives to CITES from around the world – including the EU and the US – recently agreed not to implement even the slightest of rules about declaring conflicts of interest. The secretary-general of CITES John Scanlon sounded genuinely concerned when he told me how his secretariat had suggested that such rules be put in place (rightly worried about the credibility of the convention, presumably). But the Standing Committee had thought it unnecessary.

“It was a consensus decision. No-one expressed a contrary view,” he said.

Dr Giam Choo-Hoo speaking at a recent conference in Singapore

About Frank Pope

The world's first dedicated Ocean Correspondent, for the Times of London. View all posts by Frank Pope

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