Opinion: Banning Shark Fin Sales in the U.S. Will Backfire

A proposal to do so would cause waste, promote less sustainable fisheries, and penalize US fishers who follow best practices.

By | September 27, 2017

COURTESY MOTE MARINE LABT

The proposed Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2017, currently being considered by Congress, is supported by a number of conservation groups. This bill proposes to eliminate all trade in shark fins within the U.S. to solve the problem of global shark declines. As someone with more than 40 years of experience in shark science and conservation, I am dedicated to the cause of rebuilding our depleted shark populations. But I believe that banning the sale of fins within the U.S. will be ineffective in protecting sharks.

Robert HueterCOURTESY MOTE MARINE LABThe proposed Act states that “no person shall possess, transport, offer for sale, sell, or purchase shark fins or products containing shark fins,” with a few specific exceptions. The Act is not focused on shark “finning,” which is the inhumane, wasteful practice of removing a shark’s fins at sea and tossing the animal back to die. Finning has been illegal in U.S. waters since the 1990s.

These days, U.S. shark fisheries are managed carefully for sustainability, based on scientific data. Licensed fishers are permitted to catch non-prohibited shark species, transport the whole animal back to shore, and remove fins there for sale—which is NOT finning. By requiring fishers to land their sharks fins-attached, the entire animal is used and the species of shark being landed can be determined more accurately, allowing for sustainable management by species or species group. In some other parts of the world, however, finning is still practiced and has led to significant declines in shark populations, especially on the high seas.

To understand the implications of a U.S. fin ban on shark conservation, I recently co-authored a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Policy with David Shiffman of Simon Fraser University. Our paper explains why banning the sale of shark fins in the U.S. would actually harm ongoing shark conservation efforts. Among our conclusions:

  • A US ban would have an insignificant impact on the global fin market. As David and I wrote, “. . . banning the sale of shark fins in the United States would likely not result in a significant direct reduction in global shark mortality, because the United States exports approximately one percent of all the shark fins traded globally, and imports an even smaller percentage of the global fin trade.” Fin ban supporters cite the effectiveness of the U.S. ban on ivory for elephant conservation, but the U.S. was a major consumer of ivory, plus elephant meat is not sought for human food, so the precedent does not apply.
  • US shark fishing is well regulated. Preventing the sale of U.S.-caught fins opens more market share for less-sustainable fisheries that may practice finning. “Of 16 global shark fisheries identified as biologically sustainable and well managed, 9 involve United States shark fishermen, accounting for 76.3% of total landings from these 16 fisheries,” we note.
  • A US ban would cause waste without reducing shark mortality. “. . . banning the sale of shark fins would not make it illegal to continue to catch and kill sharks in the United States. It would only regulate how the parts of dead sharks can be used. Forcing fishermen to discard fins from sharks caught in sustainably managed fisheries would contribute to wastefulness in fisheries and undermine the ‘full use’ doctrine that is a component of the [United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization] International Plan of Action for Sharks, without reducing shark mortality.”
  • Significant loss of income would be borne by law-abiding US fishers: “The proposed fin ban would . . . eliminate about 23% of the ex-vessel value of legally caught sharks, causing economic harm to rule-following fishermen and undermining decades of progress towards sustainable shark fisheries management in the United States.”
  • Instead of a ban, management for sustainability sets a better example for other nations: “A ban on the trade of shark parts from a sustainable fishery would not only eliminate a model of successful management from the global marketplace, but would also remove an important incentive for other nations to adopt that model. A nationwide ban on buying or selling fins would tell international trading partners that the United States will not support their shark conservation efforts regardless of future improvements to their fisheries sustainability.”

Instead of a ban that will be ineffective and harm the wrong people, I propose a five-point approach to benefit shark populations:

  • Increase the penalties for shark finning in the U.S., which the Florida state legislature recently enacted
  • Stop the import of shark products into the U.S. from countries that do not practice sustainable shark fishing, especially those that still permit finning. Some authority to do this already exists, and efforts are underway to legislate further authority on Capitol Hill.
  • Incentivize our domestic industry to process American-harvested fins here within the U.S., rather than ship them to Hong Kong for processing (as happens now), thereby improving traceability of legal fins and supplying the demand here in the U.S. with products “made in America.”
  • Continue to monitor our shark populations, conduct scientific stock assessments, and support strict measures for sustainability.
  • Educate the public about the real problems sharks face and empower people to do the right things to support shark conservation.

Dr. Robert Hueter is the director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.

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