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.
While the rest of the scientific and management community and I are grateful for the passionate support of many shark conservation advocates, passion is no substitute for knowledge and accuracy. Some conservation issues are a matter of opinion and can (and should) be reasonably be discussed by people with different views, but many others are a matter of fact. Presented here, in no particular order, are 13 incorrect statements and arguments commonly made by well-intentioned but uninformed shark conservation advocates, along with the reality of the situation.
1) “Shark finning” is synonymous and interchangeable with “the global shark fin trade.” Shark finning is a specific fishing method. It is not the only way to catch sharks, and it is not the only way to provide shark fins for the global fin trade. Stopping shark finning is a worthy goal (that has largely been accomplished already *) because it is a wasteful and brutal fishing method that complicates management, but stopping shark finning does not stop the global shark fin trade. Many people calling for a ban on finning really seem to want no shark fishing and no fin trade of any kind (a viewpoint I disagree with, but regardless, proper terminology matters). For more on the difference between shark fishing and shark finning, see this post from June 2012.
2) 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins. The origin of this number is still debated, but it was popularized by Sharkwater. While we will likely never know exactly how many sharks are “killed for their fins”, the best scientific estimate of the scope of the fin trade we have comes from a 2006 paper by Dr. Shelley Clarke. She found that the fins of between 26 and 73 million sharks end up in the fin trade each year, with a simulation average of 38 million. Dr. Clarke wrote an essay for SeaWeb on the misuse of her work, which is worth a read.
3) 1 in 3 species of sharks face extinction. This one is actually relatively close to accurate, and can be fixed with the addition of just two words. An IUCN Shark Specialist Group report found that 1 in 3 species of “open ocean” sharks are Threatened with extinction (Threatened means Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered according to IUCN Red List standards). 1 in 6 species of shark, skate, ray, or chimera are Threatened- while still a troubling number indicative of a very bad situation, it’s half as bad as claimed by many advocates. Also, please note that I included skates and rays, which are similarly threatened but often ignored by conservation advocates (with one notable exception from 2012).
Shark finning, one of the most wasteful, unsustainable, and inhumane methods of gathering food in the history of human civilization, has rightly become a hot topic in the marine conservation movement. However, there is a great deal of confusion among activists concerning this problem and the best way to solve it. Those of you who follow me on twitter have seen me point out numerous recent anti-finning “awareness campaigns” which feature photographs of sharks that have not actually been finned.
Shark finning does not mean removing the fins from a shark. This is really important and seems to be a source of some confusion- not every shark fin for sale in markets is the result of shark finning! Shark finning means removing the fins from a shark while still on the fishing vessel and dumping the rest of the shark overboard. This is a problem because its wasteful (less than 10% of the weight of a shark is used), because its easy to quickly overfish a population even from a small boat (fins don’t take up a lot of space on board), and because its almost impossible for managers to know how many of each species were harvested. As stated above, this practice is also shockingly inhumane, as the sharks are often still alive when they are dumped overboard.