Animal Law

A Cold-Blooded Cure: How COVID-19 Could Decimate Already Fragile Shark Populations

Emily Kennedy, MJLST Staffer

Movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and The Meg demonstrate that fear of sharks is commonplace. In reality, shark attacks are rare, and such incidents have even decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic with fewer people enjoying the surf and sand. Despite their bad, Hollywood-driven reputation sharks play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem. Sharks are apex predators and regulate the ocean ecosystem by balancing the numbers and species of fish lower in the food chain. There are over 500 species of sharks in the world’s oceans and 143 of those species are threatened, meaning that they are listed as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Sharks are particularly vulnerable because they grow slowly, mature later than other species, and have relatively few offspring. Shark populations are already threatened by ocean fishing practices, climate change, ocean pollution, and the harvesting of sharks for their fins. Sharks now face a new human-imposed threat: COVID-19.

While sharks cannot contract the COVID-19 virus, the oil in their livers, known as squalene, is used in the manufacture of vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed. Shark squalene is harvested via a process known as “livering,” in which sharks are killed for their livers and thrown back into the ocean to die after having their livers removed. The shark squalene is used in adjuvants, ingredients in vaccines that prompt a stronger immune response, and has been used in U.S. flu vaccines since 2016. Approximately 3 million sharks are killed every year to supply squalene for vaccines and cosmetic products, and this number will only increase if a COVID-19 vaccine that uses shark squalene gains widespread use. One non-profit estimates that the demand for COVID-19 vaccines could result in the harvest of over half a million sharks.

Sharks, like many other marine species, are uniquely unprotected by the law. It is easier to protect stationary land animals using the laws of the countries in which their habitats are located. However, ocean habitats largely ungoverned by the laws of any one country. Further, migratory marine species such as sharks may travel through the waters of multiple countries. This makes it difficult to enact and enforce laws that adequately protect sharks. In the United States, the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act govern shark importation and harvesting practices. One area of shark conservation that has gotten attention in recent years is the removal of shark fins for foods that are considered delicacies in some countries. The Shark Conservation Act was passed in the United States in response to the crisis caused by shark finning practices, in addition to the laws that several states had in place banning the practice. The harvest of shark squalene has not garnered as much attention as of yet, and there are no United States laws enacted to specifically address livering.

Internationally, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA) are voluntary, nonbinding programs. Many of the primary shark harvesting nations have not signed onto CMS. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is binding, but there are loopholes and only 13 shark species are listed. In addition to these international programs, some countries have voluntarily created shark sanctuaries.

Nations that have refused to agree to voluntary conservation efforts, that circumvent existing international regulations, and lack sanctuaries leave fragile shark species unprotected and under threat. The squalene harvesting industry in particular lacks transparency and adequate regulations, and reports indicate that protected and endangered shark species end up as collateral damage in the harvesting process. A wide array of regional and international interventions may be necessary to provide sharks with the conservation protections they so desperately need.

Research and development of medical cures and treatments for humans often comes with animal casualties, but research to development of the COVID-19 vaccine can be conducted in a way that minimizes those casualties. There is already some financial support for non-animal research approaches and squalene can also be derived and synthesized from non-animal sources. Shark Allies, the conservation group that created a Change.org petition that now has over 70,000 signatures, suggests that non-shark sources of squalene be used in the vaccine instead, such as yeast, bacteria, sugarcane, and olive oil. These non-animal adjuvant sources are more expensive and take longer to produce, but the future of our oceans may depend on such alternative methods that do not rely on “the overexploitation of a key component of the marine environment.”


The International Whaling Commission Sans Japan: What it Means for the Whales

Allie Jo Mitchell, MJLST Staffer

On December 25, 2018 Japan announced that it would withdraw from the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (“ICRW”) and leave the international whaling commission (“IWC”) in order to resume commercial whaling.  A statement by Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary explained that the decision to withdraw was based on the failure of the IWC to take into account all stated objectives of the ICRW, including the “orderly development of the whaling industry” and the creation of sustainable commercial whaling. Citing the cultural and economic significance commercial fishing has played in Japan, the country rested its decision on its determination that commercial whaling could resume without negatively impacting cetacean resources.

International condemnation over Japan’s decision was swift, with Greenpeace Japan questioning the health of Japan’s whaling stock and calling the decision “out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures.” The UK’s environment secretary tweeted that “[t]he UK is strongly opposed to commercial whaling and will continue to fight for the protection and welfare of these majestic mammals” and a diplomat of Norway called the decision to break away from the global agreement “dangerous.” On January 14, 2019 the IWC issued a statement that it had received notification from Japan that it would withdraw from the ICRW in 2019.  Recognizing the role Japan had played, the chair of the IWC specifically mentioned the controversy surrounding commercial whaling within its member group, offering hope that the IWC would continue to work on a variety of issues in which there was common ground.  

Now that Japan has left the IWC, it will begin the commercial hunting of whales in July of 2019 within its territorial seas and exclusive economic zone that exists within 200 miles of Japan’s coasts. Japan will also remain an observer of the IWC and “continue to contribute to the science-based sustainable management of resources.” Importantly, without it’s permit to kill whales for research under the ICW, Japan will now cease the taking of whales in the high sea, including the Antarctic Ocean and the Southern Hemisphere, as required by international law. Japan had previously killed whales in the Antarctic Ocean under the auspicious guise of research. In fact, in 2014 the International Court of Justice found that Japan’s whale research program was violating the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling because Japan was using lethal methods where none were required. Despite this holding, in 2016 a Japanese “research” expedition in the Antarctic killed 333 whales (207 of which were pregnant) with the meat from the whales sold on the commercial market.

But what does all this really mean for the whales of the world? There are some positives that may come from Japan withdrawing from the IWC, but these could easily be outweighed by the negatives. Because Japan will have to limit its commercial whaling to 200 miles within Japanese coasts, whales outside of this region, particularly whales in the Antarctic and southern hemisphere, will be in luck. However, whales within Japan’s territorial sea and economic zone, where studies suggest stock levels are low, won’t fare so well.

Furthermore, Japan may not only shift its catch to Japanese waters but could actually increase the number of whales it kills each year with little to no oversight from the international community. This could severely impact whale species, both endangered and non-threatened, and deplete whale stocks within Japan’s territorial sea. As Astrid Fuchs, program lead of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation explained, “[t]he oversight that the IWC was having over Japan’s whaling will now be lost. We won’t know how many whales they are catching, we won’t know how they will report it. It might spell doom for some populations.”

Perhaps the greater danger lies in what Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC may signal to other countries. As Japan stated in its public announcement, “Japan hopes that more countries will share the same position to promote sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence, which will thereby be handed down to future generations.” Fuchs is worried about the precedent this might set, particularly in countries with an interest in commercial whaling and whale meat including South Korea and other Pacific and Caribbean island nation states.

On the bright side, decreasing interest and consumption of whale meat may play a bigger role in protecting whales from commercial hunting than Japan’s involvement with the IWC. Demand for whale meat is the lowest in Japan since WWII, with the average consumption of whale just one ounce per person a year. A recent poll also showed that only 11% of Japanese people strongly support the whaling industry. If the economics of commercial whaling are not as strong as imagined, commercial whaling my peter out on its own in Japan.

The world will likely have to wait and see what the real effect of Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC is on the health and vitality of whale species and whale stocks. In the meantime, there are a myriad of other human caused dangers to whales from bycatch, plastic pollution, noise pollution, oil & chemical pollution, marine traffic, and climate change. Humans have a history of driving whale species to extinction, wreaking havoc on whaling stocks, and threatening the very survival of whales for their personal use and consumption. Despite Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC, it will be necessary for all nations to look beyond commercial whaling and address the continual threats humans pose to whales and other marine life.