My readers are awesome – we helped change a law!

My readers are awesome – we helped change a law!
30 June 2021

Sharks are the apex predators of the ocean, and as such an important part of the marine ecosystem. Without sharks, the oceans can’t live. Without the oceans, humans can’t live. Besides, sharks are actually great fun to hang out with. Some of my readers experienced this first-hand, as my holiday snapshot below shows.

In 2018, I organised (yet another) reader trip to the Galapagos Islands. Not only was this trip specifically geared towards divers (and those wanting to learn diving), it also aimed to raise money for a charitable enterprise.

Three years later, it’s clear that the money we helped raise contributed to an awesome success. Had I told you about this ambition back then, you wouldn’t have believed me.

Swen diving with sharks

Yours truly (far left) and a few friends hanging out with sharks.

The shocking truth about the shark fin industry in the EU

Shark finning is the practice of cutting off a shark’s fin, often while the shark is still alive, and dumping the animal back into the sea where it dies a slow and painful death. The fins are used for shark fin soup, a traditional East Asian dish. Shark finning is a barbaric, wasteful practice. If you have no idea what I am talking about, check out this short video.

The European Union (EU) has long kept a legal loophole that helped facilitate this practice. International travellers are permitted to enter the EU carrying up to 20 kilograms of shark fins as “personal allowance”. To give you an idea, that’s enough shark fins to make over 700 soups. In reality, this is a commercial allowance rather than a personal allowance.

It was clear to me that the EU was never going to change its laws. The fishing industries of France, Spain and Portugal all feature among the top 20 shark fishing nations in the world.

This EU loophole is one of the reasons why in many Chinese restaurants across Europe, you have long been able to purchase shark fin soup. Many restaurants didn’t list it on the menu and only made it available on request, or they listed it under a few well-known code names. Sadly, I saw this happening in London, too. Chinese restaurants right where I used to live in West London had shark fin soup on their menu.

Thanks to this loophole, restaurant owners were able to have family members travel back from China or Hong Kong with a suitcase full of shark fins. The EU had no interest in stopping them. Worse, because everyone in the industry knew of the loophole, some chose to simply have the fins shipped by DHL.

It was clear to me that the EU was never going to change its laws. The fishing industries of France, Spain and Portugal all feature among the top 20 shark fishing nations in the world. Given that changing regulation requires the buy-in of all EU nations, closing the loophole at EU level was just never going to happen.

Along came Brexit! As an outspoken, long-standing supporter of Brexit, I spotted an opportunity to change the situation once Britain had left the EU.

Effective philanthropy

My research of the subject led me to Bite-Back, a small London-based charity dedicated to shark and marine conservation.

It’s run by its founder, Graham Buckingham, who successfully lobbied his members to identify Chinese restaurants that sell shark fins and pressure them to give up the practice. As a result, many restaurants changed their menu, UK supermarket chains took shark meat off their shelves, and other retail chains stopped the sale of products that contain shark (such as health supplements that contain shark fin cartilage).

I met Graham on several occasions and heard of the struggles his organisation faced. Like many other charities, Bite-Back found it easier to raise donations for specific projects rather than essential operating costs. Hardly anyone wants to fund salaries, accounting, offices, and other more general expenses. Donating money to pay salaries is simply not seen as sexy.

Together with a friend of mine, successful German fund management entrepreneur Marcel Maschmeyer, I set out to provide some help. The two of us encouraged a group of friends and professional contacts with an interest in diving to sign up to a trip to the Galapagos Islands. As part of the overall package, everyone had to make a donation to Bite-Back, totalling USD 25,000. When we handed the cheque over to Graham, we asked him to “use the money to pay for stuff that other donors don’t want to pay for, and make time to lobby for a change to the law post-Brexit when you get the opportunity.

In a one-man organisation such as Bite-Back, these unrestricted funds made a real difference. Our contribution represented the single-largest donation it had ever received and helped make 2018 the most successful financial year in Bite-Back’s history. Graham remained on the ball, and the big moment arrived earlier this year.

Following all of Brexit’s delays and outright sabotage, the UK started to get serious about tackling shark fin trading in spring 2021. Graham had a hand in it, although there is only so much detail I can reveal. Let’s just say that when a series of behind-the-scenes meetings happened between Lord Zac Goldsmith (Britain’s Minister of State for Pacific and the Environment) and Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Graham’s input was actively sought.

On 12 May 2021, news broke thatnew legislation will require all imported and exported shark fins to remain attached to the shark carcass and only traded as a whole commodity.

In essence, this is the end of shark fin trading in the UK.

How many people can say their financial donation helped to change laws? The intrepid travellers who were part of my 2018 travel group can!

The EU has not made any indications that it will close the legal loophole. The newly sovereign UK, however, is now free to set its own laws and abolish this barbarism. And the UK’s role may yet lead to other nations recognising that this is simply not an acceptable practice.

As Graham said in a press release: “This news puts the UK at the forefront of shark conservation and represents a further blow to a global industry that is forcing sharks closer to the brink of extinction. We applaud the government for using Brexit to side-step this archaic EU legislation and instead lead the world in the conservation of sharks and the oceans. We hope and believe this announcement will encourage other European countries to impose similar constraints.

How many people can say their financial donation helped to change laws? The intrepid travellers who were part of my 2018 travel group can!

Another Galapagos trip opportunity (if you are fast)

I have two more trips to Galapagos lined up in October/November 2021, one for a German-language crowd and the other one for English-language speakers. Both trips are nearly booked out, but I have some remaining spaces left – and it can all be done in such a way that booking and undertaking the trip are safe despite the current pandemic.

If you are interested in learning more, you can find details about it here.

You can also support Bite-Back’s amazing work – do check out their merchandise or join as a member with regular contributions.

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