Shark Protections Strengthened

There is good news to report from the last days of the 111th Congress: Legislation to close loopholes in the 11-year-old ban on shark finning finally passed and was signed by the president. With one exemption (which AWI opposed), the new law prohibits the removal of shark fins at sea within all U.S. waters.

Shark finning is a brutal and wasteful practice by which living sharks’ fins are sliced off and their mutilated bodies thrown back into the ocean, where the animals endure long, painful deaths. Driven by the demand for shark fin soup, shark finning kills an estimated 73 million sharks each year.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law making it unlawful to possess a shark fin in U.S. waters without a corresponding carcass. Loopholes in the ban, however, prevented effective enforcement, and finning continued. In 2008, NOAA mandated that sharks (other than smooth dogfish sharks) must be landed with fins attached in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, but not the Pacific. The just-passed Shark Conservation Act extends this requirement to all U.S. waters, and prohibits the transfer of shark fins at sea.

Following its passage, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) - who championed the legislation along with Rep. Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU) - issued a statement: "Shark finning has fueled massive population declines and irreversible disruption of our oceans. Finally we’ve come through with a tough approach to tackle this serious threat to our marine life."

Unfortunately, the new law retains the exemption for smooth dogfish sharks, for which a small fishery exists in North Carolina, targeting the fish for both meat and fins. The exemption will allow these few fishermen to continue to separate fins of this species from carcasses at sea to facilitate processing. The fishermen will be responsible for demonstrating that the fins on their boats belong to the carcasses. While AWI is disappointed with the exception, the overall effect of the new law will be positive.

Requiring that sharks be landed with their fins attached is the only way to truly enforce a finning ban, and this requirement sets a new standard for other countries to follow.