Saving Sharks: A Series – Finning vs Fin Trade

There are several interpretations of the term “conservation” that cover protecting species from extinction, preventing wasteful uses of a resource to maintaining biological diversity. How we humans go about doing this, reaching these goals, is very much up for debate, and this applies to shark conservation. Those who believe that the current status of some shark species’ populations are so low that they require a change in human actions should know as much as possible about the who, what, when, where, and how of shark conservation. In this series of short blogs, we are addressing some of the most common actions taken to preserve sharks.

One strategy is to implement local, regional, national, and international rules on how to interact with sharks. This can be in the form of fishing regulations that stipulate what species can be caught or dived with, restricting the fishing and diving during certain seasons that might be important to the sharks’ life cycle. There can be rules on what fishing gear can be used and areas where they can be fished. Rules layout what species must be released and the sizes of those that can be kept. Of course, all of this hinges on thorough reporting by the fishers, anglers, and divers, and significant efforts of enforcement.

Guides like this lay out the various rules and regulations regarding sharks in the U.S.

One point that is often confused is the rules around finning versus the sale of shark fins. Although they are often used interchangeably, they are two very different strategies, each with their own definitions. Shark finning is the act of cutting the fin off the shark and leaving the body of the shark at sea. Fins are the most economically valuable part of a shark in most markets so why bother to keep all that meat when you could fill that same space with fins!

Dried shark fins in the market (Image: FAO)

A shark fin trade ban typically allows the sharks to be harvested but does not allow for the sale of the fins into the commercial market. Many countries and regions recognized early on that finning is an unusually cruel and wasteful practice that should not be allowed and therefore banned the activity. Some rules state that the shark that is caught and landed at a port for sale must have their fins naturally attached to their bodies. Sometimes the fishermen can process parts of the body at sea, i.e. remove the intestines and head. Some rules say that the fins can be removed from the body but must match the number of bodies in a specific ratio. This may allow some finning to occur undetected and prefer the “fins naturally attached” approach. The act of shark finning was banned in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean waters in 1993 and then expanded that rule to encompass the entire U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone with the landmark legislation Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 and the Shark Conservation Act of 2010.

Here in the U.S. however, the trade in the legally harvested shark fins has been banned in a handful of states and there is a bill to ban the trade on a national level but the bill has yet to become law.  Proponents of the trade bans, especially at a national level, claim that it is necessary to curb the overfishing of these sharks and protect the oceans. It would simplify the enforcement of any rules regarding fins and demonstrate the U.S.’s leadership role in sustainable shark management.

Fresh shark fins drying, source

Some argue that banning the trade of shark fins in the U.S. would do very little to curb the fishing efforts on a global scale because U.S. exports and imports only make up a small portion of the market. This means those fins would be discarded (or wasted) but the sharks would still be harvested, therefore the trade ban would not decrease the mortality of sharks. And perhaps other, less regulated fisheries would fill in the gaps left by the U.S. exit from the market so another approach would be to ensure that the U.S. does not send the fins overseas or import any fins from nations that do not have robust management and enforcement in place.

And while conservationists, policymakers, and scientists have been so focused on finning and the trade of shark fins, new data show the global shark meat trade is increasing in volume and value, further complicating the concept of shark conservation.

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