Updated on August 28, 2014
Over the last decade, the U.S. has been one of the world leaders in shark conservation. But now U.S. shark conservation could take a step backwards.
Since 2000, the U.S. has banned shark finning – the cruel practice where fishermen catch a shark, cut off its fins, and discard the rest of the body back to sea. For decades, fishermen around the globe have been killing sharks for their fins. The fins fetch a high price for their use in shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. But years of shark finning has depleted shark populations. And it has left many sharks threatened with extinction.
In 2010, the U.S. further strengthened its shark fining ban by passing the Shark Conservation Act, which requires that all sharks brought to shore have their fins naturally intact. This law helps ensure that no shark finning occurs.
While the national shark finning ban helps protect sharks in U.S. waters, some U.S. states decided to take shark protections even further. Between 2010 and 2013, eight U.S. states banned the trade of shark fins. The bans have helped reduce demand for shark fins in the U.S., reducing shark fin imports by 68%. This helps discourage shark finning in other countries that still allow this practice and protects vulnerable shark species around the globe.
But now, U.S federal fishery managers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are proposing a new shark rule, which could override these state shark fin trade bans1. NOAA says that state shark fin trade bans restrict a fishermen’s ability to legally catch sharks and later sell their fins.
How could this make sense? Why would you allow the sale and trade of shark fins, if shark finning is prohibited? The federal government is thinking that although they have outlawed landing only fins, landing the whole shark and selling the fins (or meat, jaws or any other part) is still legal for most species. The feds want to enforce a “finning” ban (meaning, again, that a boat cannot come to the dock with just the sharks’ fins) while allowing the sale of fins from legally landed shark carcasses. Yes, it’s complicated.
But why would you want to take away state laws that are helping protect sharks? Allowing the trade of shark fins encourages the continued unsustainable harvest of shark fins worldwide, which continues to put the future of sharks in jeopardy. So it seems to me, we should push for more shark fin trade bans, rather than take existing sharks fin bans away.
If U.S. federal fishery managers override the state shark fin trade bans it would be a step backwards for shark conservation in the U.S. and worldwide. And, it would sadly put a halt to all the great momentum for shark conservation in 2013. Just this past March, countries from around the globe agreed to add five species of sharks (scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, great hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, and porbeagle) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), providing landmark international protections for these species. The addition of these species to CITES will help ensure international trade of these species is sustainable and does not threaten their survival2. The U.S played a major role in getting these greater protections for sharks. This is the time for U.S. fishery managers to continue to push for even great shark protections, and continue to lead the world in shark conservation efforts. This is not the time to take shark protections away!
If you want to help sharks, write to NOAA and tell them NOT to override the state shark fin trade bans. Tell them to focus on protecting sharks!
This added at press time:
Blue Ocean Fellow and shark expert, Dr. Demian Chapman, says: “NOAA is in the tough spot of having to figure out how to allow fishermen that have legally caught sharks in federally-managed fisheries to continue to possess and sell fins in states where the sale of fins is now prohibited, just as they can legally sell the rest of the shark carcass. I do not think that NOAA’s intentions here are anti-shark conservation or pro-finning. NOAA has actually invested quite a bit into shark fisheries management over the past several years. Overturning the state fin bans altogether is drastic, however, when there are several pathways to compromise. The states, for example, could simply exempt federally licensed fishermen and dealers from the ban but maintain it on the retail sale of fins. Fins sold in U.S. retail markets are generally imported because fin processing takes place in Asia. In contrast, fins landed in the U.S. are generally exported for processing and may or may not return to our retail markets. For processed fins imported into the U.S. it is therefore generally unknown where (what country) the fin actually comes from, whether or not their shark fishery is sustainable and whether or not the shark was finned. I think that the state fin bans were mainly set up based on public concern about these uncertainties. So perhaps everyone could live with this particular solution. In any event this is an important debate and it is heartening to see how many people have rallied behind improved shark fisheries management conservation in the past few years.”
Blue Ocean Institute Founder and President, Carl Safina, says: “I respect Demian’s reasonable and informed position. I recognize a tension between federal management of sharks (which has improved) and the will of most people in coastal states who care about the issue, who would mostly prefer not to see shark fins in trade. I myself would rather not see shark fins in trade or any sharks commercially targeted. I imagine the sharks would agree. Reasonable people can disagree, though, and Demian knows this issue as well as anyone and his is an important opinion.”
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.
We received the following comment from Dr. Robert Hueter, Mote Marine Laboratory: I was disheartened to read this article as it perpetuates some misperceptions about the domestic shark FIN trade vs. the practice of shark FINNING. I’ve gotten used to seeing this kind of mixed message in uninformed, albeit well-meaning shark conservation websites by people who don’t bother to get the real story. But I did not expect to see this from Blue Ocean.
Let’s start with the headline: “As States Protect Sharks, U.S. Feds Nonsensically Insist On Continued Finning“. The only nonsensical thing here is the headline. Of course NOAA is NOT promoting shark finning — the practice of cutting the fins off a shark at sea and discarding the rest of the animal — which is prohibited nationwide. Instead, the feds oppose state laws that ban the trade of shark fins from legally caught sharks in U.S. domestic fisheries, which are under strict management for sustainability and practice full utilization of the carcass.
Later in the article: “How could this make sense? Why would you allow the sale and trade of shark fins, if shark finning is prohibited?” Because the retention of fins from legally caught sharks that are landed with fins attached is NOT finning. The fact is these state laws mainly hurt one entity: U.S. commercial shark fishermen who do NOT practice finning and, after 20 years of federal management, are fishing under severe quotas towards sustainable targets. Domestic fin bans that prohibit the sale of shark fins, regardless of source or harvest method, are punishing the wrong people, our own commercial fishermen, when it is the foreign high seas fleets that are the problem.
Because the U.S. domestic market for shark fins comprises about 1% of the global market, banning fins here doesn’t affect international supply one bit. It is NOT analogous to elephant ivory — in that case, U.S. consumption of ivory was a huge portion of the global demand, and so banning ivory in the U.S. had a major effect on international trade. (We won’t go into whether or not the ivory ban has actually had the desired conservation effect.) Do we really think that removing 1% of the global fin supply — in this case, from sustainable U.S. shark fisheries — is going to affect Asian culture and demand? No, it just gives more market share to those foreign fisheries that operate unsustainably and practice finning.
As the Blue Ocean article states, “Yes, it’s complicated.” This is the one clear truth in the article. A campaign to totally ban shark fins is so much easier to promote than one that targets the real problem: overfishing, and the need to develop responsible fisheries management for sustainability around the world.
Those who are against ALL commercial fishing for sharks, managed or not, sustainable or not, should come out and say it, and not hide behind a feel-good but flawed position that pulls at the heartstrings of the public while misleading them into thinking that finning is rampant off U.S. shores. It is not! What we should be doing is the more difficult work of telling the truth and acting wisely on it. In my view the U.S. should focus domestic policy on: 1) prohibiting the import of fins from countries without anti-finning laws and sustainable approaches to shark fisheries management; 2) bolstering domestic penalties for finning violations to eliminate the last vestiges of the practice here; and 3) promoting full utilization in our domestic fisheries that are managed for sustainability.
NOAA has been charged by the Shark Conservation Act — which is already federal law — to identify shark fishing nations that lack sound safeguards, such as anti-finning regulations, to protect sharks. We must encourage NOAA to finish that task so that fin imports from those nations can be stopped. The domestic shark fin trade could actually supply all of the demand in this country if things were handled correctly, and we might not need fin imports at all. Instead, domestic fin bans would have U.S. commercial fishermen throw away the fins from legally caught sharks — is that really a good conservation strategy, wasting a valuable part of the catch? I suppose it is if the goal is to completely kill the U.S. commercial shark fishery.
It is so vital that we scientists not jump ship on the facts to promote an agenda that is unsupported by those facts. We can win this war without misleading those we need to reach.
Reply from Elizabeth and Carl: Dr. Hueter makes some good points about what we should be doing to promote conservation by “prohibiting the import of fins from countries without anti-finning laws or sustainable approaches to shark fisheries management; bolstering domestic penalties for finning violations to eliminate the last vestiges of the practice here; and promoting full utilization in our domestic fisheries that are managed for sustainability.”
But NOAA isn’t proposing to do those things. They are not proposing to ban shark fin imports (we think all imports should be banned because we often don’t know where the fins are actually coming from, whether the shark was killed solely for fins, or if the fishery in which the fins originate is being managed sustainably). If NOAA was proposing a shark fin import ban or had come up with a solution in conjunction with the states to allow U.S. fishermen who legally catch sharks to sell their fins but ensure that there is no sale and trade of other fins then I don’t think we would be writing this blog.
Also, I do we think we explained NOAA’s rationale for wanting to override the state fin bans and we did present two differing opinions on the issue.
Carl specifically says: I do think I was clear that I would rather not see any fins traded or any sharks targeted. I don’t say that glibly or happily but I do feel that sharks are not appropriate targets for commercialized fishing. However I understand that reasonable and informed people might disagree with that. If I thought that shark fin sales were pretty airtight with regard to protected species or prohibited fins finding their way into the trade, I would stifle my personal distaste for commercial shark killing, and, in the spirit of supporting truly sustainable use, as mentioned above, we likely would not have written this blog entry.
Dr. Hueter mentions elephants. The total ban on ivory did have an immediate effect of bringing poaching to near-zero. Elephant populations began recovering. But the total ban lasted only from 1990 to 1999. That year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES; the same organization regulating international shark fin trade) allowed Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to sell 50 tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan, calling it a “one-time sale.” Then China wanted in. In a procedural sleight-of-hand, in 2008 the CITES secretariat let China bid on 102 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. (Another “one-time sale.”) Immediately after China got its 2008 ivory pass, killing surged. In Kenya, for instance, fewer than 50 elephants were killed in 2007; this rocketed to about 250 in 2009 and just under 400 in 2012. Permitting China to import ivory in 2008 opened the floodgates to laundering illegal tusks and stockpiling for more anticipated “one-time sales.” All this because some demand carvings that people could — literally—live without. As they could live without shark fins. (Safina’s full piece on the elephant situation in the International New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/opinion/global/blood-ivory.html?ref=global&_r=0)