Keeping Shark Fins in the Ocean and Out of the Soup

For over a decade, AWI has provided an online database of restaurants in the United States that continue to serve shark fin soup. The goal is to help people avoid such establishments and to call attention to the inherent cruelty associated with shark finning and the devastating effect that commercial demand for fins has on shark populations.

Even though the fins lack any real flavor, they are considered a delicacy in some East Asian dishes, notably soup and dumplings. Each year, up to 73 million sharks are believed killed for their fins, including from many species classified as endangered.

Once caught on a baited hook, live sharks are often hauled aboard to have their fins cut off. After this, the mutilated animals are tossed back into the sea to die of suffocation (as they can no longer swim), or be killed by predators drawn to the blood. The carcasses are of little economic value; by discarding the bodies, even small vessels can store hundreds of the high-value fins.

Despite their important role as top predators, sharks are vulnerable to overhunting because they mature late in life, grow slowly, and produce very few young. In this respect, their life cycle more closely resembles whales and dolphins than that of fellow fish. In some species, sexual maturity does not occur until the age of 20 and gestation can last up to two years. Unlike bony fish, sharks give birth to a handful of live young, known as pups, instead of a large number of eggs. Once reduced, shark populations are extremely slow to recover. Some shark populations have declined by 70–90 percent in the last three decades.

The AWI webpage on restaurants selling shark fin soup is one of the most visited areas on AWI’s site. We encourage visitors to avoid patronizing listed restaurants or, if they do, to voice their concerns to restaurant management. We also encourage people to inform us if they discover restaurants that serve shark fin products but are not yet on the list. Over the years, and with assistance from many interns as well as members of the public, the page has grown. From a list based on restaurants in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, the page now includes information on restaurants in over half of the country’s states and territories. No restaurant is listed until AWI personnel have verified that the facility does, in fact, offer shark fin products for sale. The list is audited every year, leading to the removal of some restaurants and the addition of others. Approximately 300 restaurants are listed currently.

Since the launch of this resource, the federal Shark Conservation Act of 2010 was signed into law, making it illegal to conduct shark finning in US waters. This was followed by legislation in various states and territories addressing the shark fin trade. A total of 14 US states and territories now have laws that ban the possession, sale, offer for sale, trade, and/or distribution of shark fins.

Many of these laws do exempt certain fisheries in which fins are not usually targeted, such as those for smooth dogfish. While this seems a logical exemption for true “shark fishers” who utilize the entire fish, it can make enforcement of the bans problematic, as species are not readily identifiable from the fins; often, the processed fins must undergo expensive DNA analysis to determine the origin.

The first state or territory to introduce shark fin trade legislation was Hawaii, with a ban that came into force on July 1, 2010. Since then, American Samoa, California, Delaware, Guam, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington have all passed bans. Rhode Island’s law, which comes into force January 1, 2017, is the most recently passed. Texas is the first Gulf of Mexico state to pass a ban; its law came into force on July 1, 2016.

AWI continues to audit restaurants in states with bans, and when we find a restaurant that is violating the law we notify the relevant authorities. In recent years, we have noticed that a growing number of restaurants that sold shark fin are ceasing to do so, presumably due to the various state bans and also, hopefully, growing customer pressure. A significant number of eateries, however, do continue to offer shark fin products for sale and some have taken to serving imitation shark fin, especially in states with bans.

Not all restaurants that tell us they are offering imitation shark fin make it clear to their customers that the dish is not the real thing. Imitation shark fin is usually cheaper than real shark fin. By not disclosing imitation fins as such, however, the restaurant may be violating the state law against offering to sell a banned product, and may also be duping the customer into thinking and paying for the real thing. AWI still lists those restaurants on our website, with an annotation that the restaurant claims the shark fin is imitation.

A new federal bill, the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016 (S 3095/HR 5584), has been introduced that could solve the state-by-state piecemeal approach to banning the sale of shark fins. The bill was introduced in July by Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (I-Northern Mariana Islands) in the House of Representatives and by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in the Senate. If passed, this bill would eliminate the need for further state legislation, standardize enforcement, significantly reduce the United States’ contribution to the global demand for shark fins, and help the United States engage with other countries in working toward a global ban on the shark fin trade.

What You Can Do

We invite you to visit our webpage (www.awionline.org/sharkfinsoup) and use it to report, avoid, and encourage others to avoid restaurants that continue to serve shark fin products. Contact your legislators via our website and ask them to cosponsor the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act (www.awionline.org/shark-fin-ban). You may also call us at 202-337-2332 to report restaurants or obtain your legislators’ contact information.