International Efforts

The top shark fishing nations are India, Indonesia and Spain, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). However, fishermen in the United States, Taiwan, Mexico, Argentina, Thailand, Japan, France, Brazil, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and New Zealand also engage in shark fishing. Countries from within the European Union are the main suppliers of shark fins to China, the world’s largest consumer of fins. Despite the worldwide decline in shark populations, many of these countries do not have any legal mechanisms in place to manage shark fisheries - and those that do tend to rely on weak, incomplete, or poorly enforced laws.

Many of the countries with shark finning bans do not require that whole carcasses with fins be brought to shore. Instead, a fin-to-carcass ratio, whereby the weight of the fins must not exceed a certain percentage of that of the carcasses, is enforced. Once fins are removed, however, it is nearly impossible to determine what species they were taken from, making enforcement very difficult and allowing fishermen to flout the law and mix and match the bodies and fins of various sharks. The E.U. instituted a shark finning ban in 2003, but with a considerably higher fin-to-carcass ratio than many countries allow - thus making the E.U. law of little practical effect.

The FAO developed the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) in 1999. The Plan calls on all fishing nations to assess the status and conservation needs of sharks and directs countries whose fisheries catch sharks to prepare and implement a National Shark Plan (NPOA). Implementation of the IPOA-Sharks has been extremely slow. Although the FAO requested that all Shark Plans be submitted by 2001, less than half of the shark fishing nations have adopted an NPOA.

A number of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have been established in order for coastal and fishing nations to cooperate in establishing catch limits, combat illegal fishing, and set other fishery management rules. Many RMFOs have banned shark finning, including the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), South East Atlantic Fisheries Organization (SEAFO) and North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). These bans, however, are also implemented through a fin-to-carcass ratio and RFMOs routinely fail to protect sharks from unsustainable fishing practices.

In 2010, a Shark Memorandum of Understanding was adopted by parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) to improve the conservation status of migratory sharks listed in Appendices I and II of CMS. The agreement prohibits the practice of shark finning and the landing of unattached fins. The Shark MOU applies to seven shark species - basking, great white and whale sharks; shortfin and longfin makos; the porbeagle; and the northern hemisphere populations of spiny dogfish. In May, 2011, Chile became the 15th country to sign on.

While many shark populations have faced steep declines due to years of exploitation and international trade, only three species - the basking, great white and whale sharks - are covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In 2010, the scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, sandbar, dusky and oceanic whitetip sharks, the spiny dogfish and the porbeagle were proposed for a CITES Appendix II listing, whereby trade would be allowed but regulated. Despite the drastic declines and continued fishing pressure on these species, every proposal was voted down. The trade in shark fins is driving many shark species to extinction and AWI continues to work through international conventions such as CITES to gain better protections.

A number of countries, including Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Ecuador, Columbia, and the United States require that sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached to their bodies to ensure that finning does not occur. Recognizing the need for even stronger protections, some nations have become true champions for sharks; since 2009, Palau, Honduras and the Maldives have all established shark sanctuaries, prohibiting shark fishing within their waters.