Efforts to eliminate the cruel practice of shark finning – slashing the fins off captured sharks for financial gain and sending the mutilated sharks to certain, slow death in the oceans – has been a long slog of slow progress, inadequate measures and outright failures. But several steps supporting shark finning bans, including significant measures in the U.S. Congress, offer hope for effective progress.
A BILL THAT WOULD MAKE IT ILLEGAL TO BUY, SELL OR POSSESS SHARK FINS within the United States was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support in late November, 2019. A similar measure in the Senate was passed out of committee earlier in the year and awaits consideration by the full Senate.
These are hopeful steps, although it should be kept in mind that similar proposals in the previous Congress died without any action. Banning shark finning has proven to be a slow, drawn-out process with partial successes, loopholes and outright evasions of laws over the years.
The issues are not only inhumane treatment of animals but its devastating effects on shark populations and on essential ocean diversity.
A HOPEFUL TREND
The steps in Congress are among several taken worldwide over the past year or so to combat the shark fin trade.
Legislation banning shark fin imports and exports was approved in Canada in mid-2019. In Europe, the General Fisheries Commission of the Mediterranean in 2018 approved a proposal to tighten shark finning regulations for the region. Even the Chinese government has taken some steps to ban the practice in the past decade, prohibiting shark fin soup from official functions in 2012.
WORLDWIDE SHARK FINNING BANS
More generally, more than 50 countries worldwide have some kind of shark finning ban in effect. Some, like New Zealand, Gambia, Panama and Honduras, ban shark finning altogether in their waters. Some, like Argentina, Brazil, India and the United Kingdom require fins cannot be removed at sea or that sharks must be brought ashore with their fins still attached.
More than a dozen major hotel chains and airlines have banned shark fins soup from their kitchens. And as many as 17 international shipping companies have banned shark fin cargo.
One factor in the calculus of shark finning bans is that some actors in the equation argue that shark harvesting should be permitted on a “sustainable” basis.
NO TASTE, HIGH STATUS
Even though shark fins are generally described as being essentially tasteless, shark fin soup has long been a highly prized delicacy in many Chinese cuisines. The taste in shark fin soup comes from the broth rather than the fins. Descriptions of fins’ texture range from snappy and gelatinous to chewy and stringy. A status symbol among Emperors and the wealthy citizens dating back hundreds of years, in effect, it’s highly sought after by the rich to prove that they’re rich.
Shark fins are not a usual ingredient in western foods but apparently a substantial number of Chinese restaurants have provided a significant market for shark fin soup in the United States and Canada. The U.S. has been both a major consumer and exporter of shark fins.
NO EVIDENCE FOR HEALTH CLAIMS, EITHER
In traditional Chinese culture, shark fins have been credited as valuable for increasing energy, preventing heart disease, lowering cholesterol and, inevitably, increasing sexual potency. Medically, there is no scientific evidence that shark fins have value for treating any medical condition.
More recently, an awareness has developed that, as apex predators, sharks are likely to accumulate mercury and other toxins harmful to human health. And, actually, some of those toxins have been identified as working against sexual potency.
BIG MONEY, CRUEL PRACTICE
Because of the long-standing popularity of shark fin soups in traditional Chinese cuisine, catching sharks and harvesting their fins has been a spectacularly profitable business for a subset of fishermen worldwide.
Their all-to-common approach is to capture sharks, slash off their dorsal, pectoral and caudal fins and then throw the sharks, still alive, back into the ocean. To shark hunters, the fins are worth everything, the 95 percent of the remaining shark merely hindrances that take up space on their boats.
Some species of sharks can’t breathe unless they swim – “ram ventilation.” Thrown overboard while still alive but unable to swim, these mutilated animals experience slow, painful death from blood loss, suffocation or attack by predators as they sink.
Beyond the issue of inhumane treatment, the shark finning industry has devastated many shark populations, driving species like the scalloped hammerhead and the great hammerhead onto the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, classified as Endangered. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora lists five or more species of sharks as at risk, it not currently endangered.
It’s estimated that 100 million sharks are killed worldwide each year, both for finning and as bycatch. Some shark populations have been reduced by as much as 70 percent due to finning. In the northwestern Atlantic, it’s estimated that the scalloped hammerhead population dropped from some 155,000 in 1981 to about 26,500 in 2005.
A 2009 IUCN Shark Specialist Group study of 64 species of open ocean (pelagic) sharks and rays estimated that 32 percent are threatened with extinction, primarily due to overfishing. Overall, it appears that sharks who swim in the open ocean are most at risk, due to the pressures of high seas tuna and swordfish fisheries. Although once regarded as “bycatch” fishes, they have been increasingly targeted.
And, in the big picture, sharks are worth far more alive than they are dead. One study found some 376 shark ecotour operations spread out among 83 locations worldwide. Another suggested that shark ecotourism to be worth some $780 million annually in the coming decades. And yet another suggests that in these terms a hammerhead shark is worth some $1.6 million alive.
Admittedly, finners may be more drawn to the $500 a pound they can get for shark fins than the economic prosperity of greater humanity.
The effort to end finning is not just a question of being kind to animals but of maintaining the diversity of important ecosystems. As apex predators, sharks help regulate the habitats in which they live, keeping in check, for instance, the population of stingrays, a significant prey of smooth hammerheads in shallower waters. Unchecked, increased stingray populations are likely to lead to overfeeding on their invertebrates prey, diminishing their availability to other animals. From there, the consequences cascade.
EXISTING LAWS, POORLY DRAWN
The effort for effective laws banning the shark fin trade has a long history. Since the mid-1990s, at least, nearly two dozen countries have restricted finning in some way. So have a number of state governments in the U.S. But, the diverse laws are far from uniform. And, often, they’re not stringently enforced. Some may ban finning in their territorial waters but still allow the import of fins from other countries. Some have been, at best, half measures.
The U.S. has previously enacted laws prohibiting shark finning in U.S. waters, but loopholes and inconsistent state laws have made enforcement difficult. In 2000, Congress passed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, making it illegal to possess a shark fin in American waters without its shark.
However, instead of requiring that fins and carcasses to be brought ashore still attached, it relied on a weight formula of fins-to-carcasses that enabled finners to evade the law by mixing and matching bodies and detached fins.
SOME LOOPHOLES CLOSED
The Shark Conservation Act of 2010 required that captured sharks must be brought to shore with their fins still attached. The law also prohibits people in the U.S. waters from finning. But this has led to an increase in purchases of fins from other countries.
Bringing an end to shark finning remains an urgent priority. But there is some good news in recent trends. On the state level in the U.S., Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale, trade or possession of fins in 2010. Other states, including California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington have followed suit. So have the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
As noted, more than 50 countries worldwide have some kind of shark finning ban in effect. You can see list on the Animal Welfare Institute website here. Governments including China and Malaysia have banned the use of shark fins at official banquets to encourage cultural change. There have been reports of declines in shark fin imports and consumption in China in the last decade or so.
Canada beat the United States in banning fins by passing a law in June of 2019. The country had banned finning in its own waters in 1994, but continued to permit them to be imported. Although the city of Toronto banned shark fins in 2011, the nation remained one of the largest importer of fins outside Asia, consuming more than 150 tons/188,000 kg of fins annually. Most of Canada’s fins came from China. Other sources have included Trinidad, Tobago. and the United States.
WHAT THE CONGRESSIONAL BILLS SAY
HR 737, the U.S. Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, was passed by a 310 to 187 vote on November 20th, 2019. It was introduced by Marianas Islands Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan and Texas Rep. Michael McFall, and garnered 288 co-sponsors.
The bill makes it illegal to possess, buy, or sell shark fins or any product containing shark fins, except for certain dogfish fins. A person may possess a shark fin that was lawfully taken consistent with a license or permit under certain circumstances. A similar bill was introduced during the previous Congress but died without any action taken.
Senate Bill S 397, introduced by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker with 37 co-sponsors, essentially uses the same language. It was reported out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in April.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: H.R.737 – Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019, Congress.gov; S.877 – Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019, Congress.gov; US Trade laws and the USA Shark Sales Elimination Act (HR737, SharkStewards.org; U.S. House Passes Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, Deeper Blue; Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey, Smithsonian Ocean; A Recent Win For Sharks Against The Cruel Act Of Shark Finning, Forbes.com; Third of open ocean sharks threatened with extinction, ICUN; Sharks worth more in the ocean than on the menu, UBC News; International Shark Finning Bans and Policies, Animal Welfare Institute; Global shark currency: the distribution, frequency, and economic value of shark ecotourism, Current Issues in Tourism; Smooth Hammerhead, Florida Museum of Natural History; Shark Fin Soup, Wikipedia.org.