The shark case in Colombia – including researchers in policymaking

Carolina Pardo Díaz Photo: Juan Zarama Perini

The recent so-called shark-case in Colombia seems to be becoming an example of positive collaboration between the academy and policymakers. Tuesday 29th of October a resolution (000350) from the Colombian Agricultural Ministry was published, which allowed artisanal fishermen to hunt up to 125 tons of shark and another 5.2 tons of shark fins. This measure would apply to the species Carcharhinus falciformis, C limbatus, C leucas, Alopias supercilius, Galeocerdo cuvier and Sphyrna spp.

But the so-called shark-resolution rapidly had the public against it as well as also a broad range of academics and environmental organizations. The criticism was about not including the Academy in the development of fish quotas, that included the newly allowance of catching those shark species.

Short time after the new quotas were published, three private universities in Bogota, The Javariana University, The Andes University and the Rosario University, published a communique, a call to the government to include the academy.

“We considered, that it was necessary to revise the numbers of fish population, which is being regulated with the new quotas,” states Carolina Pardo Díaz, Director of the Department of Biology on the Rosario University in Bogota.  

The Academy in Bogotá we among other things, worried that the allowance to establish a quota for shark fins could lead to more illegal trafficking to Asian countries. This is the first time that shark fins are included in fish quotas in Colombia. A correct calculation of the quota for sharks is primordial, because situated at the top of the food chains, the species serves an important regulator of other smaller species. If the shark population is reduced, that creates an increase of other species, which in the end puts in risk the balance of the pelagic ecosystem.   

“Any calculation of quotas for the use of a species must be based on scientific information that guarantees the sustainability of the species, and the academy has that information. This is an invitation for the government to seek approaches with universities before issuing decrees on the use of biodiversity,” says Carolina Pardo Díaz.

The academics from the universities are also worried about that there was given license to catch species, that are on the UICN red list of vulnerable species.

“We have a great task to do so that people with technical knowledge reach government positions and hold decision-making positions. In addition, there is little dialogue between the two communities. We need to build those collaboration bridges and I think this statement is a step in that direction since it openly tells the government that we, as Universities, want to help the country with our human resources, infrastructure and knowledge”.

And the director of the Biology department finds it necessary to generate more research and knowledge about the fish population, to have enough scientific support.

“It was a call from the academic institutions, that the government should seek to approach universities, to establish quotas based on reality”.

Shortly after the call from the universities, the Ministry on Agriculture has just agreed on working through this again.

“This is really positive; we succeed in that the Ministry listened to the Academy. It’s not really common and a really positive exercise. In general, the academy and the government do not work in common agreement, not necessarily when the academy raises its voice, the government hears us. This case is a positive example of that it’s possible to work together”.

The Andes University, Rosario University and Javeriana University are among the top universities in Colombia, extremely powerful institutions and very respected. Many politicians and Ministers have studies here. So, when those universities make such a statement, it weighs heavily.

In other areas there are approaches on this kind of collaboration between science and policymakers. For instance, about wildlife hunting. But it has not moved as fast as the fishing quota case. Also, the way things happened with the shark-case is not the right order of things, means the director from the Biology Department:

“It is a serious mistake to issue decrees without scientific basis, and only make corrections, if the academy makes a pronouncement. The right way is to work together from the beginning”, says Carolina Pardo Díaz. The immediate response was a surprise for the Academy, and the media played an important role making the statement visible:

“This is extremely important. We have a lot of resources and knowledge in the area of biology on sustainable and responsible management. It is essential that we as an academy support this type of policies. That our knowledge doesn’t just stay only as articles but that we can support the sustainable development of society,” says Carolina Pardo Díaz.

“It is also really important this collaboration for us, to know exactly what kind of professionals that are needed to respond to the necessities in the society”, states the director of the Biology department of the Rosario University in Bogota.

A bit further north, in Panama, cooperation between science and policy makers has meant, that there was elaborated a new route for cargo ships in the Panama Channel, to make sure, that the whales could pass as well:

“It’s all about getting the right people together to solve the important problems in society together. For instance, we have excellent experts on topics as water or transportation, and most probably politicians don’t have that knowledge, they need the science,” says Maria Gabriela Alvarado, Director of Public Relations in Senacyt – National Secretary of science, technology and innovation in Panamá.

In Panama they are organizing symbiosis breakfasts. And it doesn’t have to be that complicated, Maria Gabriela Alvarado thinks: “It’s just about getting people together. Then the rest happens by itself”.

“It has been a challenge that in general, people have very little respect for and faith in politicians. Even more the Academy. So, the experts historically have little interest in working together with politicians”.

But that situation is changing which is positive for the possibility of cooperation between researchers with important knowledge and politicians, making important decisions for the country and the people.

“We have a lot of young panameños returning after having studied abroad, and they have another mindset for this kind of collaborations. They are more openminded for that,” says Maria Gabriela Alvarado from Senacyt.

Lise Josefsen Hermann is a Danish journalist based in Ecuador