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Sea Shepherd Uncovers Huge Shipments of Shark Fins

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A shark fin worker dries shark fins on the street in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Gary Stokes / Sea Shepherd Global

Despite a worldwide ban on the transportation of shark fins by major shipping carriers, a three-month investigation by Sea Shepherd Global—as part of their global shark defense campaign Operation Apex Harmony—has verified that large shipments of shark fin are still arriving in Hong Kong on airlines and shipping lines that have made "No Shark Fin" carriage ban commitments.

Sharks are in big trouble around the world, with some populations crashing by more than 90 percent. Some species, such as the hammerhead shark, are facing a very real threat of extinction.


A growing consortium of major shipping lines, airlines and non-governmental organization's met with senior members of Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department and Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department last Friday to brief them on the Sea Shepherd Global investigation findings and discuss matters relating to wildlife crime. Top of the agenda was how to prevent products from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—listed endangered species from being unknowingly shipped. These included many types of vulnerable and endangered shark fin found in the Hong Kong shark fin trade, such as hammerhead shark and oceanic whitetip shark.

A History of the Shark Fin Transport Bans

Since 2010, international wildlife conservation groups have been focusing on the shark fin supply chain by lobbying both airlines and shipping lines to ban the transport of shark fins and shark products. Yet the laundering of fins taken from illegal species of sharks inside consignments of fins from legal yet unsustainably-fished shark species is still rife. To their credit, Maersk, the world's largest shipping line, led the way as the first company to implement a worldwide ban on shark fin carriage in 2010, with 16 of the world's leading container shipping lines soon following their example.

"Maersk Line is committed to enforcing our policy not to carry sharks fin products on our ships. It is frustrating that some traders seemingly mis-declare the cargo they intend to ship with us in order to try to get around the restrictions we have put in place. However, we are grateful to Sea Shepherd for their investigative work to highlight this problem and we are working with Sea Shepherd and other NGOs as well as with HK Customs and other stakeholders to tighten our procedures to ensure the ban we place on carriage of shark fin is effective in the future," said Tim Smith, chairman and chief representative of the North Asia region, Maersk.

A shark fin worker unloading one of the 45 foot Maersk containers in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.Gary Stokes / Sea Shepherd Global

Around 92 percent of shark fins entering Hong Kong arrive via sea freight, while the remaining 8 percent arrive via air cargo. Having worked with a number of locally and internationally respected conservation specialists since 2010, the Hong Kong-based carrier Cathay Pacific became the first airline to place an initial ban on un-sustainable shark and shark products, including shark's fin, in September 2012, extending to a full ban on shark's fin in June 2016.

"As a signatory to the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce Buckingham Palace Declaration, Cathay Pacific is committed to not knowingly facilitate or tolerate the carriage of illegal wildlife products. This is an important initiative by Sea Shepherd and we will support it as much as we can to close out any loopholes that affect the effectiveness of our embargo policies," said Evelyn Chan, head of Environmental Affairs at Cathay Pacific Airways.

The airlines campaign was led by Alex Hofford, now of WildAid Hong Kong and supported by around 30 global marine conservation and animal welfare groups, including Sea Shepherd and the World Wildlife Fund.

Evidence the Ban Hasn't Been Working

As with most environmental issues, the first challenge is to change the rules. But the second and much harder challenge is to enforce those rules. Despite recent media claims that the trade is down overall, Sea Shepherd Global began its investigation after seeing evidence of large shipments of shark fins arriving in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district. "The months leading up to Chinese New Year are always the busiest months for the shark fin traders as they seek to fulfill the demand of the mainland Chinese market during the festive holiday," said Gary Stokes, Sea Shepherd Global's South East Asia director.

Unloading a delivery of shark fins that were carried unknowingly by Maersk who have a "No Shark Fin Ban."Gary Stokes / Sea Shepherd Global

The three-month long investigation documented large shipments arriving by carriers who have pledged to ban the transport of shark fins, including two 45-foot containers full of shark fins from the Middle East which arrived in Maersk containers. An airfreight shipment on Virgin Australia Cargo and Cathay Pacific which had been falsely declared as "fish products" was not identified by customs. The exporter who attempted to transport these goods has now been blacklisted by Virgin Australia Cargo which has a ban on the transportation of shark fins. The problem that companies such as Virgin, Maersk and Cathay Pacific are now facing is that shark fin traders are abusing the system by fraudulently mis-declaring and mis-labeling shark fin under generic categories such as "seafood," "dried seafood," "dried goods" or "dried marine products" to avoid detection.

"It's so sad what the team at Sea Shepherd has managed to discover. Thousands and thousands of sharks slaughtered just for their fins to be turned into bowls of soup. For those people who have knowingly participated they need to hang their heads in shame. For Sea Shepherd and the team led by Gary Stokes, they need to be congratulated for exposing this foul and sometimes illegal trade," said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group.

"Well over thirty airlines and just under twenty container shipping lines now operate No Shark Fin cargo bans. Yet some airlines, such and Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines, are resisting industry best practice and are still propping up the crime-ridden shark fin trade. WildAid is calling on all passenger airlines, cargo airlines, container shipping lines as well as express parcel carriers such as FedEx and TNT, to act sustainably, ethically—and above all legally—by ruling out dirty shark fin shipments from their cargo holds," said Alex Hofford, of WildAid.

Working Together to Close the Loopholes

Presented with the evidence, Maersk, Cathay Pacific and Virgin are now working in close collaboration with Sea Shepherd Global and WildAid to close all remaining loopholes being exploited by the shark fin trade. "A full review is being undertaken of their booking procedures and alert mechanisms to help them enforce their bans," said Stokes.

Inside a shark fin warehouse in Hong Kong with a large shipment of sharks fins.Gary Stokes / Sea Shepherd Global

All international trade is monitored and facilitated by the World Customs Organization, which maintains a detailed list of Harmonized Shipping Codes (HS Codes). These are 6-digit codes (HK goes one step further by increasing to 8-digits) which can show, at a granular level, the exact contents of a cargo shipment. However HS Codes are right now only being used to track import/export data exclusively for statistical reasons, with trade declarations only being filed after a shipment has arrived. Sea Shepherd Global and WildAid are calling for the switching of Hong Kong's trade documentation filing requirement to be switched from post-shipment to pre-shipment. With the availability of pre-shipment information, Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department will be able to carry out more effective risk-profiling and hence more targeted enforcement work. Mandatory filing of full HS codes prior to port arrival would ensure that airlines and shipping lines can be more certain of the exact contents of cargo shipments. Such a system is already in place in the U.S. as an effective counter-terrorism measure. Spain also operates similar, more stringent, shipping procedures that can give customs the edge over the agile transnational wildlife crime syndicates. The Hong Kong government is also calling on the public and the business sector to support the availability of pre-shipment information to align with international mainstream and best customs practices, yet is facing stiff resistance from the trade.

Sea Shepherd Global has launched a full in-depth investigation into the global shark fin trade and its supply routes to provide a clearer picture to shipping companies for them to best tackle and enforce their commitments to environmentally sustainable shipping policies.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.