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U.S. government: shark fin bans “significantly undermine conservation and management of Federal shark fisheries”

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Photo Credit: Jessica King, Marine Photobank

Photo Credit: Jessica King, Marine Photobank

I’ve written in the past about why shark fin bans might not be the best tool for the conservation and management of sharks. Though specific details vary, these so-called “blanket bans” typically make it illegal for anyone to buy, sell, or possess shark fins regardless of the source *. Additionally, to date most of these fin bans have taken place in a few U.S. states and Canadian towns. If the goal of these state-level fin bans is to reduce the supply of fins to the global market, proponents should consider that  according to TRAFFIC, more than 95% of the supply of shark products comes from countries outside of the U.S. and Canada.  Even if every U.S. state passed a fin ban, it would have a negligible  direct impact on global supply. Additionally, the United States has some of the most sustainably managed shark fisheries in the world (hammerhead sharks and a few others are an exception). We want other countries to emulate out management practices, not to remove our management practices from the global marketplace.

If the goal of these local fin bans is to reduce global demand, proponents should consider that the overwhelming majority of the demand for shark fin soup is in China and Southeast Asia, where passing such bans will pose a significant challenge. Some proponents of fin bans say (after the negligible impact on supply and demand is pointed out) that fin bans help with  “raising awareness of the problem of overfishing of sharks”. While these fin bans do result in (relatively) positive media coverage for shark conservation, “raising awareness” is not the publicly stated goal of these bans. If your goal is to educate people about a problem, educate people about the problem.

Instead of inflexible and ineffective fin bans that penalize fishermen who have adopted best practices * without impacting the global market, I’ve advocated for a science-based approach to sustainable shark management following the 10 basic principles in line with what has been laid out in the United Nations Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization’s International Plan of Action for Sharks and IUCN Shark Specialist Group guidance. These principles include banning finning of sharks by requiring that carcasses be landed whole (recall that finning is a specific fishing practice not synonymous with the fin trade), using science-based quotas to manage the fisheries of sharks whose populations can support a fishery, and restricting the harvest of species whose populations cannot.

Recently, the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (which, once again, manages some of the most sustainable shark fisheries on Earth) has started to officially speak out against state level fin bans.

In their response to the petition to list scalloped hammerheads under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service noted that: “we do not find these [state-level shark fin bans] to be conservation measures that we consider effective in reducing current threats to the any of the DPSs [Distinct Population Segments of scalloped hammerhead sharks”

In a comment posted in today’s Federal Register about the implementation of the 2010 Shark Conservation Act, NMFS had much more to say about state level shark fin bans.

“Several states and territories have enacted or are considering enacting statutes that address shark fins. Each statute differs in its precise details, but generally most contain a prohibition on possession, landing or sale of, or other activities involving, shark fins… These statutes have the potential to undermine significantly conservation and management of federal shark fisheries. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the United States claims sovereign rights and exclusive fishery management authority over all fish, and all Continental Shelf fishery resources, within the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and also claims exclusive fishery management authority for specified resources beyond the EEZ…The Magnuson-Stevens Act defines “conservation and management” as including measures “which are designed to assure that . . . a supply of food and other products may be taken, and that recreational benefits may be obtained, on a continuing basis.National Standard 1 requires that conservation and management measures under a fishery management plan, plan amendment or implementing regulations “prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry…State prohibitions on possession, landing, transfer, or sale of sharks or shark fins lawfully harvested seaward of state boundaries constrain the ability of federal fishery participants to make use of those sharks for commercial and other purposes…Congress chose to prohibit discarding shark carcasses at sea, and required that fins be naturally attached to the carcass of the corresponding shark. The SCA [Shark Conservation Act of 2010] therefore reflects a balance between addressing the wasteful practice of shark finning and preserving opportunities to land and sell sharks harvested consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Although state shark fin laws are also intended to conserve sharks, they may not [as in “are not permitted to”] unduly interfere with the conservation and management of federal fisheries….The Magnuson-Stevens Act preempts state regulation of fisheries in waters outside the boundaries of a state…, a state law that interferes with accomplishing the purposes and objectives of the Magnuson-Stevens Act would be preempted. As described above, promoting commercial fishing under sound conservation and management principles is a key purpose of the Act. If sharks are lawfully caught in federal waters, state laws that prohibit the possession and landing of those sharks with fins naturally attached or that prohibit the sale, transfer or possession of fins from those sharks unduly interfere with achievement of Magnuson-Stevens Act purposes and objectives.”

It’s worth reading the entire note to get a sense of NMFS’ thorough legal, practical and philosophical objections to shark fin bans. Before you celebrate news like today’s announcement that the Maryland shark fin ban is poised to be signed into law, stop and think whether state-level shark fin bans are the best use of the time and resources of the conservation movement. The fisheries management agency responsible for some of the most sustainable shark fishing on the planet certainly doesn’t think that they are, and may even be taking action to prempt them.


*Some proposed fin bans exempt locally caught species. For example, the proposed Maryland ban exempts species like smoothhound sharks (which are by far the most commonly caught local species). The NMFS explanation in the Federal register says that this may be acceptable: “For example, if a state law prohibiting the possession, landing, or sale of shark fins is interpreted not to apply to sharks legally harvested in federal waters, the law would not be preempted.”