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Reader mail: Sustainable shark finning?

Our latest reader mail comes from my friend Mike, who writes for the conservative political blog SaveTheGop. Though we don’t agree on much, he’s usually a reasonable guy. His question concerns a post I recently wrote about Hawaii’s proposed bill to ban the sale of shark fins within their state.

“So what about fins from sharks legally caught? I don’t suppose there is a way to certify if a fin came from a legally caught shark or was just cut off a live one netted at sea.

I think worldwide many fisheries are going to collapse unless there is more effective regulation similar to what was done a few years back in Iceland with the cod fishery and in Alaska with King and Snow Crab. Roughly 100 million sharks were harvested last year (David you can correct me if that number is way off, I’m not the expert). Some species have extremely robust population numbers so banning all shark fishing seems a bit extreme to me. I think certain species should definitely be illegal to catch and sell.

What if you could only sell fins that had been taken off legally caught sharks at the dock under supervision of the government vs the illegal and wasteful finning of sharks at sea and dumping the bodies? I think strong regulation in US waters would do more to stop the illegal finning and would shut down the massive black market in shark fins. Go into any Chinatown in this country and you can buy black market shark fins. If that demand could be satisfied by a sustainable harvest from already caught sharks it might save millions of sharks from death.”

-Michael Shutze, Jr.

There are a lot of interesting points here, and I’ll try my best to respond to them all.

It is indeed almost impossible to tell if a fin came from a legally-caught shark or not. The best tools we have can identify what species of shark a fin came from (which sometimes identifies an endangered species of shark that shouldn’t be caught at all) and can sometimes tell what region of the world a shark was caught in (which sometimes tells us that illegal fishing is going on). However, a lot of illegal finning takes place undetected.

In general, though, I don’t think that there should be legal finning at all. Because of the low population sizes of upper trophic level predators and certain life history characteristics of sharks (they are slow to reach reproductive age and they have few young), most species of sharks are extremely vulnerable to fishing pressure. Essentially every time there has been a legal fishery for sharks, it has collapsed within a few decades.

I’m not against fishing in general, but certain species (like most sharks) just can’t support a fishery. Also, shark fin soup isn’t exactly a staple food item for the poor- it’s an expensive delicacy, and the fin itself is made of cartilage… so it adds absolutely no flavor to the soup.

You mention that some species have extremely robust population sizes which could support fishing. This is true, but the overwhelming majority of shark species do not. Also, shark fisheries are a management nightmare because many shark species look extremely similar to each other- including some threatened species that look an awful lot like species with large populations.

Your idea about selling fins from already-caught sharks rather than targeting sharks for finning is an interesting one, but it would also be a nightmare to enforce. People could simply claim that the shark was already dead and we’d have no way to prove or disprove what they say.

In short, if someone came up with a sustainable shark fin fishery, I’d be somewhat supportive of it, but life history characteristics of many shark species, the black market nature of the fin trade, and the difficulty of telling certain species apart make that extremely unlikely. The “somewhat” nature of my support comes from the fact that shark finning is still extremely wasteful and inhumane, and it provides a delicacy and not a staple.

As for the “100 million” number- yes, that number is often cited, but the most scientific estimate we have is “as high as 73 million” sharks killed each year for their fins. Still a lot, but probably not quite 100 million.

Thanks for your questions. I hope I’ve answered them, but if not, pester me in the comments section.

If anyone else has a question that you’d like one of your Fry-entists to answer, shoot one of us an e-mail with the subject “Reader Mail”.