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 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s shark specialist group estimated that 30 percent of sharks are threatened with extinction, including six 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 mutilated animal is 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 has unquestionably played 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 also has a significant history as an 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 have been passing through our borders—and many from countries that have no regulations whatsoever concerning the finning of sharks at sea.
Growing concerns for shark populations ultimately 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 fishers 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, Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act (SCA) in 2010. This law strengthens the nation’s shark finning ban by requiring fishers in US waters to bring sharks ashore with fins naturally attached. While the SCA prohibits anyone under US jurisdiction from engaging in finning, consumers of fins continued to import large numbers of fins. Moreover, fins from sharks caught in US waters continue to be sold after they were detached on land, thereby fueling demand for the product.
Consequently, several states and US territories enacted laws to 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 trade ban was still needed to ensure that the United States did not continue to serve as a driving force behind the slaughter of sharks around the world.
First introduced in 2016, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act passed the House of Representatives in late 2019 after amassing 281 cosponsors. The Senate companion bill, led by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), garnered 46 cosponsors in the Senate and cleared the Commerce Committee but did not receive a floor vote that year. Finally, in December 2022, the bill passed the House and Senate as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 7776), and subsequently was signed into law by President Biden. The measure prohibits the sale, possession, transport, and purchase of shark fins and shark fin products in the United States. Its passage is a significant victory for shark species and marine ecosystems across the globe.
Below is a list of state laws relating to the sale, possession of, and/or trade in shark fins. We commend these states for paving the way for a federal ban.
Hawaii (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 188-40.7)
Prohibits the “possession, sale, and distribution of shark fins.”
- Date Effective: July 1, 2010
- Statutory Penalties: for 1st offense, fine of $5,000 to $15,000; for 2nd offense, fine of $15,000 to $35,000; for 3rd offense, fine of $35,000 to $50,000 and/or up to 1 year in prison
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (PL 17-27)
Prohibits the “possession, selling, offering for sale, trading, or distributing shark fins.”
- Date Effective: January 26, 2011
- Statutory Penalties: fine of $5,000 to $30,000 and/or up to 6 months in prison
Guam (5 G.C.A. § 63114.1)
Makes it unlawful to “possess, sell, offer for sale, take, purchase, barter, transport, export, import, trade or distribute shark fins.”
- Date Effective: March 9, 2011
- Statutory Penalties: felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and/or fines of $500 to $5,000 per violation
- Statutory Penalties: Class B misdemeanor for each offense, punishable by a fine up to $500 and up to 6 months in prison; a business entity in violation is subject to at least a $1,000 fine
Washington (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 77.15.770)
Prohibits the “sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins.”
- Date Effective: July 22, 2011
- Statutory Penalties: for 1st offense, a gross misdemeanor punishable by suspension of commercial fishing privileges for 1 year; for 2nd offense, a Class C felony if the shark fin is worth more than $250, punishable by suspension of commercial fishing privileges for 1 year
Oregon (Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 498.257)
Prohibits “possessing, selling, offering for sale, trading or distributing shark fins.”
- Date Effective: January 1, 2012
- Statutory Penalties: Class A misdemeanor; for 1st offense, fine of up to $2,500; for 2nd offense (within 10-year period), fine of up to $4,000; for 3rd offense, fine of up to $10,000; for 4th offense, fine of up to $25,000
American Samoa (24 A.S.A.C. § 24.0961)
Prohibits the “possession, delivery, carry, transport or shipment” of shark products
- Date Effective: November 1, 2012
Illinois (Il. Fish & Aq. Life Code Ann. § 5-30)
Makes it unlawful to “possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin.”
- Date Effective: January 1, 2013
- Statutory Penalties: if shark is valued at less than $300, Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $2,500 and 1 year in prison; if shark is valued at greater than $300, Class 3 or 4 felony, punishable by 1 to 3 years in prison
California (Cal. Fish & Game Code Ann. § 2021-2021.5)
Makes it unlawful to “possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin.”
- Date Effective: July 1, 2013
- Statutory Penalties: up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine per offense
Maryland (Md. Nat. Res. Code Ann. § 4-747)
Bans the “sale, purchase and transportation of sharkfins without the shark’s carcass.”
- Date Effective: October 1, 2013
- Statutory Penalties: for 1st offense, fine of up to $1,000; for 2nd offense, fine of up to $2,000 and up to 1 year in prison
Delaware (Del. Code Ann. tit. 7 § 928A)
Bans the “possession, sale, offer for sale, and distribution of shark fins.”
- Date Effective: January 1, 2014
- Statutory Penalties: Class B environmental misdemeanor for each offense, punishable by a fine of $250 to $1,000.
New York (N.Y. Envtl. Conserv. Law § 13-0338)
Prohibits the “possession, sale, trade and distribution of shark fins without the shark's carcass.”
- Date Effective: July 1, 2014
- Statutory Penalties: imprisonment up to 15 days or minimum fine of $250
Massachusetts (MA Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 130 § 106)
Makes it unlawful to “possess, sell, offer for sale, trade or distribute a shark fin.”
- Date Effective: September 1, 2014
- Statutory Penalties: fine of $500 to $1,000 and up to 60 days in jail, as well as possible suspension of all fishing privileges
Texas (Section 66.2161, Parks and Wildlife Code)
Prohibits “possession, sale and purchase of shark fins or products derived from shark fins.”
- Date Effective: July 1, 2016
- Statutory Penalties: for 1st offense, Class B misdemeanor, punishable by fine of $200 to $2,000 and/or imprisonment up to 180 days; for additional offenses within 5 years, Class A misdemeanor, punishable by fine of $500 to $4,000 and/or imprisonment up to 1 year
Rhode Island (RI Gen. Laws § 20-1-29)
Prohibits any person from participating in the “sale, possession, trade and distribution of shark fins” in the state.
- Date Effective: July 1, 2017
- Statutory Penalties: fine of $500 to $1,000 and/or imprisonment up to 90 days
Nevada (NV NRS CH. 597 § 2-3)
Makes it illegal to “purchase, sell, offer for sale or possess with intent to sell any item” made with shark fins.
- Date Effective: January 1, 2018
- Statutory Penalties: 1st offense is a misdemeanor; 2nd offense is a category E felony; 3rd and all subsequent offenses are category D felonies; following all criminal charges is a civil penalty not to exceed $6,500 or “an amount equal to four times the fair market value of the item which is the subject of the violation, whichever is greater”
Florida (Section 379.2426, Fla. Stat.)
Provides that “a person may not possess in or on the waters of this state a shark fin that has been separated from a shark or land a separated shark fin in this state,” as well as the “import, export, and sale of separated shark fins.”
- Date Effective: October 1, 2020
- Statutory Penalties: for 1st offense, a misdemeanor of the second degree, suspension of license privileges for 180 days, and a fine of $4,500; for 2nd offense, a misdemeanor of the second degree, suspension of license privileges for 365 days, and a fine of $9,500; for 3rd and subsequent offense, a misdemeanor of the first degree, permanent revocation of license privileges, and a fine of $9,500
New Jersey (N.J.S.A. 23:2B-23)
Prohibits the “sale, trade, or distribution of shark fin, or the possession of shark fin that has been separated from a shark prior to its lawful landing.”
- Date Effective: January 1, 2021
- Statutory Penalties: for 1st offense, fine of $5,000 to $15,000; for 2nd offense, fine of $15,000 to $35,000; for 3rd or subsequent offense, fine of $35,000 to $55,000 and imprisonment up to 1 year