Sonja Fordham founded Shark Advocates International as a project of The Ocean Foundation in 2010 based on her two decades of shark conservation experience at Ocean Conservancy. She is Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and Conservation Committee Chair for the American Elasmobranch Society, has co-authored numerous publications on shark fisheries management, and serves on most of the U.S. federal and state government advisory panels relevant to sharks and rays. Her awards include the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award, the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award, and the IUCN Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership.
After many months of intense attention to advances in international shark conservation policy through CITES and the European Parliament, it’s time to refocus on sharks in my backyard. A potentially terrible shark policy precedent has been brewing through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), and threatens to weaken that body’s coast-wide ban on finning (slicing off a shark’s fins and discarding the body at sea) smoothhounds and other sharks. Help from the concerned public is needed in the final few days of the official public comment for this proposal!
The ASMFC is proposing changes that apply to smoothhound sharks, specifically Mustelus canis, the only U.S. Atlantic sharks that are subject to targeted commercial fisheries without quotas. Smoothhound landings have been on the rise in recent years, and yet there have been no assessments of population status or sustainable catch. North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey are the top states for smoothhound landings. A draft amendment to the ASMFC coastal shark plan could establish state smoothhound shares based on fishing history, in anticipation of quotas, but also threatens to relax already lenient finning measures by:
- allowing commercial fishermen to remove all of the fins of smoothhound sharks year-round (currently only allowed for four months under a complicated fin-to-carcass weight ratio aimed at ensuring fins and bodies are landed in the appropriate proportion), and
- more than doubling the maximum smoothhound shark fin-to-carcass ratio from 5% of dressed weight to a whopping 12%, meaning much higher volumes of fins could be landed per carcass.
The troubling proposals stem from confusing text contained within the 2010 Shark Conservation Act, which suggests a smoothhound exception in a national ban on removing shark fins at sea. This language, however, has yet to be interpreted by the federal government. State interpretation and implementation is therefore premature.
More important, the proposed changes represent a huge step backwards in finning policy at a time when much of the rest of the world is moving toward the clear best practice for finning ban enforcement: requiring that all shark fins stay naturally attached to shark bodies. For example, the European Union (EU), among the top suppliers of shark fins to Asia, has recently changed course from lenient, hard-to-enforce ratios toward complete bans on at-sea removal of shark fins, regardless of species.
The U.S. federal Atlantic ban on at-sea shark fin removal, along with “fins-naturally-attached” decisions in the EU and elsewhere, are based on expert advice that the only way to be sure that sharks have not been finned is to mandate that their fins cannot be removed until after landing. In addition to improving and easing enforcement, this policy facilitates the collection of species-specific catch data, which are vital for population assessment. The ASMFC, however, has not even proposed a fins-naturally-attached policy for smoothhound sharks, or any stronger measures, as options for public comment.
Allowing year-round smoothhound shark fin removal under the world’s most lenient fin-to-carcass ratio would hamper enforcement and create wiggle room for fishermen to fin smoothhound sharks without detection. Other species of small coastal sharks as well as juveniles of depleted large coastal shark species could also be at risk for undetected finning and unrecorded mortality because of these loopholes.
In addition, relaxing a state finning ban jeopardizes the U.S. reputation and goals as an international champion of the fins-naturally-attached method. The U.S. has supported the end of complicated fin-to-carcass ratios in the EU and elsewhere, and has proposed complete bans on at-sea shark fin removal at international fisheries bodies.
Concerned citizens can help by writing to the ASMFC by 5:00pm EST March 28 to voice support for moving forward rather than backward in the prevention of shark finning. State fishery managers clearly need to hear from people who oppose the proposed 12% fin-to-carcass ratio for smoothhounds, and support instead a fins-naturally-attached rule for all sharks, or even stronger rules. Send your letter or email to:
1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200-A-N
Arlington, VA 22201
The ASMFC is scheduled to take final action on these measures during the week of May 20.
Thank you for your help.