Transcript of my interview with Dr Giam

There’s been a fair amount of outrage at the revelations in my story about Dr Giam Choo-Hoo and plenty of requests to see the rest of the interview.

If you’ve never looked into the reality of CITES, then you’ll likely find it pretty surprising that it is the last bastion of hope for many species that are pushed to the edge by voracious demand, often from the other side of the world. For those that do know CITES (or the International Whaling Commission, for that matter), it’ll just be a depressing confirmation of what they already know: that these are trade organisations.

There should be some cross-over in the wishes of trade and conservation. To ensure the long-term sustainability of the creatures being traded, a viable population must persist. But traders often aren’t interested in the fate of species – as you can detect in what Dr Giam says below. A shark’s a shark, no matter that a hammerhead and a mako are so different that my three year-old can tell them apart.

There are many other, darker accusations that fly around about why traders often seem to be unconcerned with true sustainability, but often it’s a simple tragedy of the global commons. Which is where we need a credible UN-level organisation to keep things in order. Can CITES ever be that, if its members won’t even pass a motion that conflicts of interest be declared?

The story [LINK] that appeared in the Times on Thursday was a much-reduced version that as a consequence perhaps didn’t explain things as fully as it might have. I’ve also posted the post-lawyer, pre-editorial crunch version of the original story here [LINK].

Below is a transcript of my conversation with Dr Giam on 14th March 2012. I’m in italics. I’ve edited it and added punctuation for clarity.

 

Thank you for sending through your speech. Very interesting. You’re not proposing that it’s ok to eat endangered sharks are you? Your line is just that not all sharks are endangered therefore we shouldn’t stop all eating of shark fins, right?

You haven’t had time to read my article. It’s very long. It’s meant to be very long. But… based on CITES itself only one shark is endangered and that is the sawfish. And then you have the other three sharks which are on are Appendix II.

I put it down as 400 species of sharks. OK, in fact I’m wrong and the latest figure is more than 1,000 species of sharks.

I would say only one shark is endangered and that is the sawfish. The rest are not endangered so of the rest anybody can eat anything they want of any species they want. This is based on CITES.

When you ask how you distinguish between species that is irrelevant because I can catch any shark I want, they are not endangered.

The other thing. Another reason why I say sharks are not endangered is that every country catches sharks, including the EU, the US. No country catches orang-utan, gorilla, elephant because they are all endangered.

I spend a lot of time in Kenya, and there’s currently a problem with lots of elephants being killed.

OK, yes, poaching. OK, that’s wrong…

This is where the entire world has been brain-washed by the NGOs. I’ll go back to my article. The point is that 90 per cent of sharks, or 80 per cent whatever it is, it’s a large number of sharks are accidentally caught. These sharks are caught anyway. Whether it’s meat or fins or whatever, they are caught and so unless you thrown them away into the sea or render into fertilizer. The question of fins and meat and all that is irrelevant. If you want to save sharks, I say stop catching sharks.

If it’s elephants and lions and all that you stop catching them. Don’t tell me… You say don’t use rhino horn but I say you are catching rhinos so in the first place you should stop catching rhinos…

I believe the argument is that trade drives the demand that leads to the poaching that can’t be properly controlled

Ah! Wonderful! This is what the NGOs say but I’m saying that’s not true because… I’ll give you an example. Spain is one of the top shark-catching countries in the world, agreed?

So they say.

So Spain is in the top five. In fact Spain is number three in the whole world for catching sharks. Number one is Indonesia, India is number two. Spain is three. Are you telling me that the government of Spain is allowing sharks to be caught for the fins alone?

The USA is the fifth largest shark catching nation in the world. Are you telling me that the USA is allowing fishermen to catch sharks for the shark fin industry? We’re talking the fifth largest in the world. These are FAO figures. I put them in my annex. It shows that 30 per cent of the sharks are being caught in the developed world. Are they all catching them for the shark fin industry? You mean they throw away all the meat?

I’ve been told you know Charlie Lim at the Marine Products Association. Do you know Charlie?

I’ve met Charlie. I’ve met everybody. I’ve been involved in CITES for twenty plus years. So I know Charlie, yes yes.

And you know the Marine Products Association?

I don’t know the details but I’ve met all of them. Now I’ve met Frank also, at least I’ve spoken to him. What about you, do you know Charlie?

I can look him up. Some people have been a bit concerned about your links to the shark fin business. I need to ask you some questions about that.

That’s what they always say about me. It’s the way NGOs always do. It’s always about this character assassination. You judge me, not what is my relation with the Times of London or the New York Times or whatever but on the data and whatever I say to you. You tell me where I’m wrong. If I say the sun rises in the east, Whether I’m associated with this or that is irrelevant. This is what they keep on saying.

In other UN bodies like the FAO and the WHO there are definite rules about conflicts of interest and there aren’t such rules in CITES. Many feel there should be, from what you’re saying you feel that there shouldn’t be.

That’s not for me. I don’t make the UN rules. I’m nothing at all. This is the way they always do these things. They feed you misinformation. I am elected by the 32 countries in Asia.

I’ll  give you an example. Conflict of Interest? Of course. Generally speaking because I’m elected by the Asian region I’ll tend to want to help them out, to assist wherever I can. It is my duty as a committee member. I’ve been on the Cambodian delegation, I’ve held Mongolia, Iran. But if they come to me on something that I think is endangered, this is wrong, this is not sustainable I’ll tell them… ok I will advise them and say I can’t really do this. If they still want me to do it then OK I will do it but tell the world that this is not my view this is not my view this is the view of the country that asked me.

I was under the impression that on the animals committee you were elected as an individual rather than as a representatives of a nation.

You are right. I’m one of the unique persons really, that is there as an individual. I’m still elected by the Asian region. They have faith in me. They know over the years that I’m a sane person, a fair person. And if we do something that’s not sustainable I will tell them on the quiet and they will respect me for that. I’ve done it many times.

It’s famously put forward that shark’s fin soup is central to Chinese culture. So you’re saying that representing China you’re forced to help the shark’s fin industry?

Frank you’re going round and round. We’re now talking about whether the thing is endangered or not. Why do you talk about the fin industry and all sorts of things. The reason I talk to the Times – I assume you’re from The Times – it’s because I know you are all responsible.

So I come back to the first question. Are sharks sustainable or not? You have seen my paper and what I say. It’s not because of my ties with the fin industry, or not the fin industry…

Do you have ties to the fin industry?

I have ties with everybody! With the media and with everything. This is my duty as somebody who’s dealing with sustainability and conservation and everything.

Have you ever been a representative of the fin industry?

No.

There was an interesting passage in a recent book about sharks by Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post. She said you’d introduced yourself to her as a representative of the shark fin industry.

Wonderful, Frank. In fact if not for the recent [fuss] I wouldn’t have heard of this book. By chance I went to my local library, and I’m surprised they even had a copy of her book. I look at what she has written about me, I would say that everything she has written about me is wrong. Every word.

But I’m not saying she’s telling a lie, all right? It’s just that… she’s got so much to do that she juxtaposes everything wrongly. That stuff about Cheng Ho and all those things, I don’t know anything about those things. I know about Cheng Ho is because of the well in Malacca But besides that, about Cheng Ho in 14th 15th century I don’t know that much.

When I met her in Hong Kong I happened to be there – I’m from Singapore – and by chance she happened to be there. That’s why I talked so freely with her. I go all over the place. Everything she says is wrong. I’m not saying that she’s lying but she made a mistake.

She seems very sure. And it seems that you also know Charlie Lim very well and that you’re an advisor to his association. I’m just trying to be clear because it’s important.

Frank I don’t want to go along this line forever. What I’m saying to you is that you must judge me by what I say. I’ve told you about Spain and the FAO figures. You cannot say that sharks are endangered because there are more than a thousand species, just like you can’t say that birds are endangered. You can’t say things like that.

You think that I have ties with the fin industry or no ties with the fin industry, to me that is irrelevant.

Just so that we can move on and talk about other things, do you catergorically deny that you have any formal relationship to the fin industry?

Whatever I say nobody will believe me so I don’t want to say anything. Because if I say no they will say Ahhh, no no no, and if I say yes they will say you see? To me it’s irrelevant.

I go around the world around the developing countries, I’m tied up with ASEAN, I go to the fisheries people and I help them out. Tanzania, Nigeria, all these people I tie up with them, the whole lot.

You only stop me if I tell a lie somewhere.

Can I just run you through a few other things that have come up on this issue of your representations on the animals committee? It seems from CITES documents you’ve been running a long-running campaign of technical issues, procedural complaints and time-stalling against any listing of sharks. Would you like to comment on that? Or is this just part of your representation of Asian interests?

No, this is part of… I’ve done other things that you haven’t seen. I’ve also got into dolphins, ivory, snakes, on every other things. That is different. The sharks are of interest in particular in Asia, in Japan, China, the whole ASEAN, India, the middle east and so on. They come to me and ask and say this is true and I say that’s not true, that’s not true. It’s not only sharks. It’s sharks because of their high profile, the lies and all of that.

Look at the US. They only ban shark fins and not the meat! And yet they’re the fifth largest shark-catching nation in the world. What logic is there, Frank? I’m lost.

I’m a little confused by your argument about no sharks being endangered other than the sawfish because CITES doesn’t list any other sharks, but CITES is a political body guided by science. It seems a circular argument.

Frank. Let’s start one by one. You say CITES is a political body. I’m not here to defend CITES or not. All I know is that it’s a UN body with 175 governments. So I suppose all UN bodies are political, I don’t know. Say it like that of course it is political. But if you’re trying to tell me that CITES is useless for conservation then so be it dismember CITES. It’s up to you to resign from CITES.

I just mean that… nations take the science and look at the science but don’t make the decision purely on science they take into account other factors, like their ability to enforce the rules and so on. It’s a more nuanced decision than being a purely scientific body.

OK Frank, if you say to me CITES is a political body, are you saying don’t obey CITES? Don’t obey what they have decided?

You have a rather extreme meaning for the word political. I’m not using it as a term of abuse, I’m just using it as a descriptor to say that it’s not purely scientific, because it doesn’t aim to be purely scientific. It’s a decision of member nations.

No CITES has ever expected that anyway in the first place. I’m a scientist, I’m a vet. There are borderline cases whereby it’s 50 per cent. 51, 49, It’s not as black and white as that, even in science. I don’t know your background…

I have a degree in zoology

I’m sure. You see when the NGOs don’t like something they say aaaargh it’s political. When I do something wrong with orangutan or elephant they say aaaargh he’s not followed CITES.

You’re the longest-serving member of CITES are you not?

Yes.

Are you still on the board of Heng Long International?

Frank, why must I tell you if I’m divorced or not, whether I have a girlfriend or not, and so on?

It’s a professional interest1

I’m not interested in telling the whole world if I like you or I don’t like you. Frank, please, I refuse to say yes or no.

And what about the Species Management Specialists? You’ve been an official observer for them at CITES before. Are you still involved with them?

Yes and no. Now that you mention it I’m not sure where I am with them. I have a very loose connection with them. I have got so many connections around the world I lose track. But to me it’s irrelevant.. We are talking about science.

OK. So broadly your message is that the demand for shark fins is not driving the global declines being seen in shark populations?

The answer is no. You refuse to see my figure which is based on FAO, the developed countries catch 30 per cent of the world’s sharks. If they are endangered why do they catch 30 % of the world’s sharks?

That’s not quite the whole story, is it? A large number of sharks are caught by IUU fishieriers that aren’t listed in the FAO figures.

OK, ok, but the point now is that there are millions and millions of sharks caught and then if you don’t take the fins or the meat then they will be thrown away. But the answer to all this is fisheries management. You must stop people from catching sharks. Once you stop that everything is all right.

Say there’s a species called Frank Popeii…

Sounds a wonderful shark

You can say its endangered, then we all stop catching Frank Popeii. Why don’t we do that?

IT’s a bit like saying we should stop catching rhinos. I think everyone’s trying very hard to stop the catching of rhinos, but the price of rhino horn is just too high and the demand too is just too strong. Likewise shark’s fin is one of the most expensive seafood items out there, that drives people to seek them out.

There’s a big difference. Rhinos are in Appendix 1, sharks are not even in any appendix. So one is endangered, one is not. One is a cockatoo, one is a sparrow.

I’m still confused by your use of CITES as a listing for what is endangered and what is not. I realise that IUCN is an NGO but they are respected. Should we not use that as a reference instead?

Wonderful. All right. IUCN, I’m a member of one of the committees. IUCN I have the highest respect for IUCN. It is one of the best. But please remember IUCN is an NGO. CITES is a UN body.

But it’s not a scientific body

Anybody can be a member of IUCN. I can be a member, a zoo can be a member. You yourself can be a member.

That doesn’t mean I can issue advice in the name of IUCN

IUCN – like many NGOs… recording cuts out.

His gist in the last few minutes of our conversation was the continued assertion was that IUCN should not be trusted to issue impartial scientific advice and that it was preferable to use CITES as a guide to whether or not a species was endangered.

He went on to say that it was not possible to be without an agenda, that everyone has one like it or not. “There is no such thing as a person without an agenda. We’ve all got an agenda,” he said.

Asked whether it mightn’t be a good idea to declare this agenda Dr Giam repeated that these were private and not a concern. The science, he said should speak for itself.

 

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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