Shark finning is the inhumane practice of cutting off a shark’s fins, often while the shark is still alive, and discarding the body into the ocean. The fins are used in soup and other dishes. Although shark fin itself is tasteless and the flavor of the soup comes from other ingredients, the soup is viewed as a delicacy and status symbol by some Asian cultures and is commonly served at weddings and other special events. Traditionally an expensive dish, shark fin soup is increasingly sold more cheaply. As economies grow in Asia, a dish once reserved for the elite is now available to many more consumers, and is in demand in many Asian communities around the world, including across the United States.
Threats to Sharks and the Cruelty of Finning
Although sharks have existed for over 400 million years, in recent decades many populations have faced steep declines due to rampant exploitation. Sharks’ slow reproductive rates make them extremely vulnerable to extinction. The disappearance of these apex predators causes dangerous imbalances in marine ecosystems worldwide. The decline in shark species will inevitably cascade through the food chain, leading to the loss of additional fish populations. As of 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s shark specialist group estimated that a quarter of sharks and related species (e.g., rays and chimaera) are threatened with extinction, including 11 shark species that are critically endangered.
Unless the rising demand for fins is curbed, this percentage will only increase. Each year, fins from up to 73 million sharks enter the global market. Moreover, approximately 50 million sharks die annually as bycatch in unregulated and indiscriminate longline, gillnet, and trawl fisheries. Given the myriad and unsustainable threats that sharks face, we must take action to ensure these animals will remain an integral part of the Earth’s oceans. Eliminating the shark fin trade removes one of the biggest impediments to their continued survival.
Typically, sharks are finned alive. They are brought aboard fishing vessels, where their fins are sliced off, after which the sharks are thrown back into the sea to suffocate, bleed to death, or be eaten by other animals. The commercial value of shark fins is high compared to the meat; by keeping only the fins, fishing vessels can take more sharks on a single voyage, making the hunting ruthlessly efficient.
The United States unquestionably plays a major role in the global shark fin trade. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported approximately 60 metric tons of shark fins were imported in 2016, up from the 29 metric tons in 2007. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations noted in 2015 that these figures are likely “substantial underestimations of the real quantity of shark fin imports.”
The United States is also a significant exporter of shark fins; trade data from 2005 to 2014 indicate that mainland China received shark fin consignments from the United States totaling 1,060 metric tons, while Hong Kong received 16,659 metric tons. This includes exports from US sources as well as transit shipments from other countries. Exact trade figures are difficult to obtain due to a number of factors, including a lack of oversight, differences in labeling rules, and deliberate mislabeling of shipments. However, it is clear that a staggering number of fins are passing through our borders—and many of these come from countries that have no regulations whatsoever concerning the finning of sharks at sea.
Current Shark Finning Legislation
Growing concerns for shark populations have led legislators in the United States to enact laws to restrict the practice of finning, as well as the possession of shark fins.
In 2000, Congress passed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, which made it unlawful to possess a shark fin in US waters without a corresponding carcass. Unfortunately, the ban did not require that carcasses be brought ashore with fins attached, relying instead on a fin-to-carcass ratio, whereby the total weight of the fins must not exceed a certain percentage of the total weight of the carcasses. This allowed fisherman to flout the law by mixing and matching bodies and fins from various sharks, making enforcement very difficult—since it is nearly impossible for enforcement officials to determine what species fins are from once they are removed from the body. The consensus of scientists, conservationists, and enforcement officials is that the only way to effectively enforce a shark finning ban is to require that if sharks are fished, they must be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached.
Recognizing this loophole, the federal government passed the Shark Conservation Act (SCA) in 2010. This law strengthens the nation’s shark finning ban by requiring fishermen in US waters to bring sharks ashore with fins naturally attached. While the SCA prohibits anyone under US jurisdiction from engaging in finning, consumers have largely turned to international markets for fin imports. Moreover, fins from sharks caught in US waters continue to be sold after they are detached on land, thereby fueling demand for the product.
Consequently, twelve US states and three territories (California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands) have enacted laws that prohibit shark fin trade outright, making it illegal to sell, trade, or possess shark fins within their borders.
In 2016, NOAA published its final rule to implement the SCA’s provisions. It also confirmed that state-level bans are entirely consistent with the aims of—and should not be preempted by—federal law, further cementing the importance this country places on combating the inherent cruelty of finning and tackling the shark fin trade head on.
Despite these important federal and state/territory laws, a comprehensive nationwide ban is needed to ensure that the United States does not continue to serve as a driving force behind the slaughter of sharks around the world.