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Progress: It’s now only legal to remove fins at sea for one shark species in the United States

Shark finning, the process of removing shark fins at sea and dumping the rest of the body, is nearly universally opposed by conservation activists, scientific researchers and fisheries managers. In addition to being potentially inhumane (the shark is often still alive when dumped overboard,) this processing method is exceptionally wasteful and makes it very difficult for fisheries managers to get accurate species-specific catch data.

There are severals ways to stop shark finning. One is to ban fishing for sharks entirely, fins of sharks can’t be removed at sea if sharks aren’t caught in the first place. It is important to note that some well-intentioned activists  use “stop shark finning” as a synonym for “stop shark fishing of any kind,but that is unequivocally not what shark finning is and not what finning bans accomplish. The second method is through the use of fin to carcass ratios. Under these policies, fisherman can remove the fins of sharks at sea as long as the total weight of fins landed does not exceed a certain percentage (usually 3.5 to 5%) of the total weight of carcasses landed. This can still leave room for some undetected finning (these ratios vary by species and fin removal method) and still makes it difficult for managers to know how many of each species are being caught (sharks are more readily identifiable when their fins are intact). Finally, a method growing in popularity in recent years, which is generally considered to be a best practice of shark fisheries management, is the requirement of landing all caught sharks with “fins naturally attached.”

The United States has long been a leader in shark finning policy, first banning finning with the 1993 Federal Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Sharks through the use of a fin to carcass ratio. Finning bans were expanded to the US Pacific through the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000, and a requirement in 2008 for fins naturally attached in 2008 for the Atlantic. The U.S. also champions fins-attached requirements at regional fisheries management organization meetings.

The 2010 Shark Conservation Act included a requirement for almost all species of sharks to be landed with fins naturally attached. This “almost” is importantThe SCA created a new exception and potential finning loophole for Atlantic smooth dogfish, the second largest U.S. shark fishery (for which there are not yet catch limits) to be landed using an astoundingly lenient 12% fin to carcass ratio.

In March of this year, we asked for your help to encourage the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to implement a fins naturally attached policy for dogfish. Unfortunately, the ASMFC did not heed this advice (keep those cards and letters coming!) and instead acted before NMFS and interpreted the SCA exception in the most lenient way: 12% fin to carcass ratio for all smoothhounds.  Last week, however, the ASMFC’s spiny dogfish management board took an important step by unanimously approving a proposal to manage spiny dogfish under a fins naturally attached policy, which will come into effect by May 1st of next year.

“Recent action by the ASMFC should finally end problematic 5% fin-to-carcass ratios for spiny dogfish in Atlantic states – particularly Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, and North Carolina – thereby ensuring consistency with federal rules and allowing for better finning ban enforcement and data collection along the eastern seaboard,” said Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International.  “Their recent decision to ban at-sea removal of spiny dogfish fins, although not exactly monumental or unexpected, was a huge relief, made even more encouraging by the fact that it was made unanimously. We now turn our attention back to Atlantic finning rules for smoothhounds (smooth dogfish), the one shark species whose fins can still be legally be removed at sea in U.S. Fisheries.  State and Federal exceptions and the outrageously lenient regulations  12% fin-to-carcass ratio complicate enforcement and risk undetected finning of smoothhounds as well as variety of coastal sharks caught along with them.”

While the ASMFC spiny dogfish fins-attached decision is an important step, shark finning bans do not necessarily reduce the number of sharks that are killed by a fishery. In fact, they’re not really supposed to. While large-scale finning operations are associated with lots of mortality because more sharks can be killed per trip if only the fins are stored onboard, finning policies are intended to  regulate how the sharks are used so that it is done in a manner that minimizes waste and  allows regulators to monitor the fishery more effectively. A variety of other complementary regulations are needed to ensure more sustainability in commercial shark fisheries. These include limits such as quotas that regulate the number of sharks landed based on the best available scientific data about that species’ population status and life history, efforts to monitor and reduce accidental mortality and bycatch, and extra protections for particularly threatened species.

In nations like the United States, the participatory rulemaking process allows concerned citizens to have a say in the development of all these regulations. In the past, efforts to stop shark finning have received overwhelming support from the public (particularly when related to larger sharks), but  many other important regulations have not. As we move a step closer to finally close the last loopholes in U.S. shark finning policy, I can only hope that the public support that brought us this far will help with other ocean conservation measures, including catch limits for dogfish and  much-needed support for threatened skates and rays.