Mariah Pfleger is a marine scientist at Oceana, an international marine conservation non-profit, advising both the responsible fishing and sharks campaigns. She graduated from Florida State University in 2012 where she studied coastal sharks and their relatives. In 2016 she earned her Master’s degree from the University of West Florida where she researched both coastal and deep-water sharks and rays. Mariah worked for 3 years as a field assistant, and during her Master’s an additional 3 years as a field manager, on the Gulf of Mexico Shark Pupping and Nursery Program. She has also conducted research using environmental DNA to detect rare and endangered sturgeon. Her twitter handle is @MariahPfleger.
The demand for shark fins is widely recognized as one of the major contributors to shark mortality around the world. However, solutions to decrease this demand are hotly debated, especially in the scientific community. Southern Fried Science and other websites have published opinions that debate the effectiveness of shark fin bans, but as a shark scientist working to implement this policy I would like to present the case for shark fin trade bans.
The conversation is newly relevant with the introduction of the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act in the Senate on March 30th by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Shelly Moore-Capito (R-WV) and in the House on March 9th by Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (I-MP). If passed, the bill would ban the buying and selling of shark fins in the United States – thereby removing the United States from the global shark fin trade altogether. The bill is championed by Oceana, where I work as the scientist on the sharks campaign.
The demand for fins fuels finning – the act of slicing off a shark’s fins and dumping the body back into the ocean. The United States recognized this practice was a problem and implemented the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 followed by the Shark Conservation Act (SCA) in 2010, which required that all sharks must be landed with their fins naturally attached (except for smooth dogfish, which can be landed under a fin-to-carcass ratio). However, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the United States is still importing fins from places like Hong Kong, China, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa and Indonesia, to name a few. Not all of these countries have anti-finning laws, which means that the United States may be, and likely is, purchasing fins from finned sharks. Once in the United States market, there is no way to tell whether a fin came from a finned shark or not. By purchasing these fins, the United States is sustaining the demand for this unsustainable practice.
Recognizing this, 11 states and three U.S. territories have banned the buying and selling of shark fins and many more shipping companies, airlines and corporations are following suit. However, state bans only go so far. For example, despite a trade ban in California, fins still enter the state through the Port of Los Angeles. If a federal bill was in place a loophole like this would not exist. In addition, there is evidence that as one state bans the trade, the market simply shifts to another. For example, Savannah, Georgia is now the leader in shark fin exports despite not exporting any fins before 2014 and despite only landing $370 worth of sharks in 2015 . A federal trade ban is the most effective method to unify enforcement – no fins can enter the United States, no fins can be sold within any state, and no fins can cross state lines.
Why can’t the United States just ban imports of shark fins?
Some may argue that the United States should just ban the import of foreign fins, while still allowing U.S. fishermen to export theirs. That option would violate fundamental principles the United States has agreed to as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The WTO is founded on principles of non-discrimination in trade. A trade ban that blocks imports of shark fins would violate “national treatment,” which holds that a nation must give other countries’ goods the same treatment as one’s own national goods. Additionally, a trade ban affecting only nations that allow finning violates “most favored nation treatment,” which requires that countries cannot discriminate between their trading partners; if a special favor is granted to one partner, the same must be done for all other WTO members. Should either of these principles be violated, a country could sue the United States before a WTO tribunal. That country could also retaliate against the United States by raising the prices of certain exports to the United States, and U.S. consumers would end up paying for the violation.
Would a trade ban actually curb wasteful mortality?
The gold standard of fin-related shark conservation in recent years has been to implement a fins-naturally-attached rule, which requires fishermen to bring the shark to shore with all of their fins intact. Fins-naturally-attached rules make it obvious when the shark has been finned. This rule, however, may not actually decrease the number of sharks that are killed. Instead, it may simply change the manner by which sharks are brought to shore. It is quite possible that meat fisheries for sharks have sprung up only because fishermen who want fins are now required to land the whole shark. A fin trade ban would weed out the individuals who are only landing whole sharks for their fins and require that fishermen dispose of fins like many already do with the guts and head of landed sharks.
What about certification?
Certifying imports from other countries as sustainable or comparably managed to U.S. standards requires a huge political lift. Negative certifications must go through the Department of Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, and possibly others, with the President having the final say. At any of those points a negative certification could be denied. In addition, it would be difficult to identify which countries should receive negative certifications. Globally, China and Hong Kong are known as the hub of the shark fin trade, but that does not necessarily mean that these sharks were harvested from Chinese waters by the Chinese fishing fleet. Fins sold in/from China may be re-exports from any other nation and the fins could have changed hands multiple times between the boat and the market. For this reason, certainty that the right countries are being certified would be extremely difficult.
If the U.S. supply ends, might the demand be filled by a country with lax shark laws?
The idea that if the U.S. supply of shark fins ends the market will be filled by a less conservation-oriented nation is a principal known as conservation leakage and was discussed in this recent article. However, as this paper states, “conservation leakage results when domestic measures to conserve resources lead to negative environmental impacts from an increase in foreign production to meet persistent demand.” The shark fin trade does not fit the qualification of having persistent demand. In fact, the worldwide shark fin trade has declined about 20 percent since 2003. A collaboration between BLOOM and the Social Sciences Research Centre of The University of Hong Kong found that nearly 70 percent of Hong Kong residents have reduced or stopped eating shark fin soup, and over 80 percent of surveyed respondents say that environmental concerns are the reason they are consuming less. If fewer people are eating shark fin soup and the market is on a downward trend, then a major assumption needed for conservation leakage to occur is no longer valid.
In addition there is some confusion about how much the United States is really contributing to the shark fin trade. For example, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations report, State of the Global Markets for Shark Products, the U.S. is a net exporter, exporting an average of 171 metric tons between 2000 and 2011and importing an average of 36 metric tons during the same time period. However, when the FAO summed other countries’ trade data they found that those countries are receiving 71 percent more shark fins than the U.S. reported exporting. Likewise, other countries reported sending the U.S. 7 times more shark fins than the U.S. reported receiving, throwing into question whether the U.S. is a net exporter or importer and further confusing the impacts of conservation leakage in this scenario.
To be clear, a fin trade ban is not seeking to end legal, sustainable shark fisheries. Many shark species are edible and with proper management can be considered sustainable. Fishermen will still be able to fish for these sharks for meat. But if the value of a particular shark species is in its fins – with use of its meat an afterthought – those sharks should not be killed. That statement should hold true globally, but the U.S. cannot simultaneously advocate for finning bans in those countries which lack them while we continue to buy those same fins.
Shark conservation in the United States and around the world is a multifaceted issue, and a fin ban is one step of many. However, we cannot take international steps to protect sharks around the world if we do not take the steps necessary to clean up our own backyard first. Oceana is committed to continued action for sharks the U.S. and in our other country offices. We have ongoing campaigns to reduce shark bycatch and end overfishing of these species. A shark fin ban is not the only thing that the U.S. can do to help protect sharks, but it is a great step in the right direction.