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The Case Against Shark Fin Trade Bans

Photo credit: Jessica King, Marine Photobank

The United States Congress is considering a nationwide ban on buying, selling, or trading shark finsWhile several of my posts and tweets have briefly discussed my stance on such policies, I’ve never laid out my full argument in one post. Here is why I, as a shark conservation biologist, oppose banning the shark fin trade within the United States.  The short answer is that the US represents a tiny percentage of overall consumers of shark fin, but provide some of the most sustainably caught sharks on Earth, as well as important examples of successful management, to the world. This means that banning the US shark fin trade won’t reduce total shark mortality by very much, but will remove an important example of fins coming from a well-managed fishery while also hurting American fishermen who follow the rules. Also, a focus on these policies promotes the incorrect belief that shark fin soup is the only significant threat to sharks, and that addressing the tiny part of that problem locally represents the end of all threats. For the longer answer, read on. And for the case for shark fin bans, please see this guest post from Oceana scientist Mariah Pfleger.

Shark fin trade bans do not allow for a sustainable supply of shark fins to enter the marketplace, punishing American fishermen who are doing it right. Sustainable trade is incompatible with a total ban on trade, at least in the same place and time. The United States has some of the most sustainable managed shark fisheries on Earth. When these fisheries provide fins to the marketplace, it shows that fins can absolutely come from a well-managed shark fishery. This can be an important example for international fisheries negotiations and associated advocacy (e.g., “the United States manages their shark fisheries well, and so can you, here’s how.”) According to Dr. Robert Hueter of Mote Marine Laboratory, a nationwide ban on the shark fin trade “will cause the demise of a legal domestic industry that is showing the rest of the world how to utilize sharks in a responsible, sustainable way.” (And yes, sustainable shark fisheries absolutely can exist and do exist, although there are certainly many more examples of unsustainable shark fisheries.) Several experts in international fisheries negotiations have privately told me that the US has more negotiating power when we can say “manage your fishery sustainably like we do” instead of “you should manage your fishery sustainably, but we decided to stop participating in this market entirely”/ “we won’t buy your product regardless of how sustainable you make it.”

Most shark scientists, including me, prefer sustainable trade to banning all trade in general. As part of my Ph.D. research, I surveyed the members of the world’s largest professional societies focusing on sharks90% of respondents believe that when possible, sustainable fisheries exploitation is preferable to banning all exploitation or trade. (Shark fin bans themselves received the second-lowest support, and second-highest opposition, of any policy tool I asked about.)

The United States is importing some fins from other countries (some of which still allow finning), but not very many. If the goal of a nationwide ban is to reduce US consumption of shark fins imported from nations that allow finning, one could argue that this problem is so small as to not even really need a solution. According to the recent United Nations “state of the global market for shark products” report (summarized by me here), the United States imports an average of 37 tons of shark fins a year, or about 0% of total shark fin imports worldwide. Some of these countries that we import fins from still allow finning, some do not. The breakdown isn’t particularly detailed, but some key suppliers of fins to the US are EU nations with stronger bans on shark finning than the US has. Also, at least some shark fins that we import are caught here, exported to Hong Kong, and then reimported after processing. (No, we probably can’t just ban imports of shark fins from countries that allow finning because of World Trade Organization rules, but I’ve heard different opinions on this.)

The United States is not that big of a player in the shark fin trade, which suggests that any global reduction in shark mortality from a US shark fin trade ban would be small. According to that same UN report, while the US export many more fins than we import, the US still doesn’t export very many (an average of 171 tons of shark fin a year, about 1% of the global total, though other reports have the US as high as 3% of the total trade). If the United States banned exports of shark fins, 97-99% of the global trade in shark fins would be unaffected. It is not inconceivable for that gap to be filled by less well-managed fisheries elsewhere, and even if it isn’t, that’s really not very big of a change.

Banning finning while still allowing the trade in shark fins is absolutely not a “loophole.” Some advocates claim that allowing the trade in fins from sharks that were landed without being finned is a loophole. It is not. It only seems like a loophole if you don’t know the original purpose of these rules, which was to address issues associated with waste and animal cruelty, not to reduce the trade in fins or the killing of sharks in general. Finning bans affect how you can kill sharks, not how many sharks you kill or what you can do with already-killed sharks. Other rules like fisheries quotas were intended to address overfishing/overexploitation, but that was not the goal of banning finning according to the governments who have implemented such rules and many of the advocates who helped bring them into place. Some of them may result in a reduction in fishing effort, but that was not the goal.

The shark fin trade is not the only threat to sharks. If one were to learn about ocean conservation issues primarily through environmental social media channels, one could reasonably conclude that the shark fin trade is the only major threat to sharks, but this just isn’t the case. The global trade in shark meat is rising. A nationwide ban on the trade in shark fins in the United States will not affect this emerging threat to sharks, but pushing for sustainable fisheries exploitation will limit shark mortality whether the sharks are being used for fins or meat. Other threats to certain threatened species include habitat destruction and climate change, which a ban on the fin trade will also not address. We need comprehensive plans to address shark overfishing and non-fishing population declines. Also, a heavy focus on the fin trade has lead to misleading media coverage suggesting that fixing the fin trade will by itself save sharks. 

Many supporters of a shark fin trade ban misunderstand the difference between shark finning and the shark fin trade. If your objection to the fin trade in the US stems from an objection to shark finning, the US already banned shark finning many years ago (starting in 1993 for Atlantic shark fisheries), and much of the rest of the world is following. The United States requires (almost) all species of sharks to be landed with their fins naturally attached, and one holdout (Atlantic smoothhounds) is governed by a fin to carcass ratio. (Recall that the word “finning” only refers to cutting the fins of a shark off at sea and dumping the carcass at sea. If the shark makes it to land, that shark has not been finned, regardless of what happens to the shark’s fins afterwards. If you are using the term shark finning to refer to something other than this, you are incorrect.)

Full use, including using the fins, is an important component of sustainable shark fisheries management. The principles of sustainable shark fisheries management call for “full use” of dead sharks. While the original purpose of this argument was “cutting off the fins of a shark and dumping the meat overboard is wasteful so don’t do that,” is selling the meat of a dead shark but dumping its fins not also wasteful? Shark fin trade bans do not (directly) stop people from killing sharks, they only affect what you can do with the shark carcasses after they are dead. If this bill passes, shark fishermen can still catch and kill sharks, but will be required to dump the otherwise-usable fins. That is wasteful, and may also cause fishermen to catch more sharks now that a single shark is worth less money.

A focus on fins has lead to some unpleasant east vs. west culture clashes. If the goal is cultural pressure (e.g., “shark fin soup is culturally unacceptable to me for reasons other than principles of sustainable management,”) consider the example of whaling. Whaling hasn’t been economical in Japan for a long time, and is heavily supported by government subsidies. It has been argued that without such heavy cultural pressure from the West, whaling may have stopped on its own due to a lack of profitability, but that the Japanese government doesn’t want to lose face due to Western pressure to stop. (Certainly it is worth noting here that many objections to whaling are based not just on sustainability and animal cruelty, but on the intelligence of marine mammals). Similarly, lawsuits that have been filed in several states where the US already bans the shark fin trade mention an unfair discriminatory focus on the Chinese community. Given an unpleasant history of racism in the environmental movement, we should proceed with caution when targeting a culturally important product primarily consumed by one non-Western cultural group.

Why does shark finning bother people, but not skate winging? I’m not a fan of “why do you care about this but not that” arguments, but closely-related skates face many of the same conservation threats as sharks. Also, skate winging is basically the exact same thing as shark finning, except that it is legal in the United States and in many other places, and it doesn’t ever seem to come up in these discussions. I don’t think that every proposed policy needs to cover every problem, but the relative focus on one of these related issues vs. the other is striking to me.

In conclusion, the best available evidence suggests that a nationwide ban on the United States shark fin ban won’t do very much to help sharks, will harm US fishermen who are following the rules, may actually hurt some international shark fisheries management negotiations, and would falsely suggest to many that the problems of shark conservation are solved. Instead, I favor a comprehensive approach to shark fisheries management and conservation that allows for trade from sustainably exploited populations, such as those caught in US fisheries.