What shark finning means (and doesn’t mean): a primer and quiz

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.

While shark finning is still legal  in parts of the world (and practiced illegally many other places), most developed countries have outlawed this practice. Some fishing nations regulate the fin trade by the use of “fin ratios”, which means that fins can be removed from shark bodies at sea as long as the bodies are brought to shore and the total weight of the landed fins doesn’t exceed a certain percentage of the weight of the landed bodies (typically 5%). There are a lot of problems with this management strategy, but its a lot better than finning because it is less wasteful and it allows managers to see what species have been harvested. The best possible shark fin fisheries management practice is landing sharks with “fins naturally attached” (as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes science-based fishing quotas, appropriate protections for threatened species, appropriate monitoring, reporting, and enforcement, bycatch mitigation strategies, etc).  After the sharks are landed “whole” and reported appropriately, the fins can be removed and sold.

In other words, if a shark carcass is brought to shore, even without fins attached, that shark has not been finned. If a shark carcass is brought to shore with its fins attached, as long as it isn’t a threatened species and it was caught according to a science-based quota, this situation is not only not something we should be criticizing, it is, in fact, that goal of responsible shark fisheries management.

This misconception is important in explaining why I (as well as many, many other scientists and natural resource managers) do not support “fin ban” legislation that makes it illegal to buy, sell, or possess shark fins regardless of where they came from. These bans do not allow for well-managed fisheries to supply the marketplace with fins, and they do absolutely nothing about other shark fishing issues. In contrast, a comprehensive shark fisheries management plan addresses all the shark fishing issues and allows for well-managed fisheries to supply the marketplace with fins.

Another important point about shark “fin bans” is that they do not address shark “finning” at all, despite what many supporters claim. Finning is largely illegal already in the areas which are considering fin bans. Almost all shark scientists and natural resource managers, including myself, are opposed to finning.

Quiz: here are some common types of images used in shark conservation awareness campaigns. Which of these sharks have been finned, and which have not? Answers are at the bottom.

1) A pile of dead sharks along a beach/street/ fish market- have these sharks been finned?

Image credit: David Jacobson-Fried, Marine Photobank

2) A man removing the fins from a shark- is this shark being finned?

Image credit: Fiona Ayerst, Marine Photobank

3) A fisherman holds a still-bleeding shark fin and a knife. Is this finning?

Image credit: Jeff Roman, from Oceana’s “End of the Line” report

4) A big pile of shark fins- did fishermen get these from finning sharks?

Image credit: Jessica King, Marine Photobank

5) Dead or dying sharks on the bottom of the ocean without their fins- have these sharks been finned?

Image credit: Jeff Roman, from Oceana’s “End of the Line” report


1) No.  These sharks have been landed whole, with fins naturally attached. As long as the sharks aren’t a threatened species (they aren’t in this case) and they are landed according to a science-based quota (impossible to tell from a photo like this, though likely not the case considering where the photo was taken), this is an example of responsible shark fisheries management (Clarification based on a reader’s comment: this may be an example of responsible fisheries management, which could very easily look just like this, but you cannot tell from the photograph). Regardless, this is not finning, and photos like this should not be used in anti-finning awareness campaigns or petitions. It may make a reasonable point about the scale of shark fishing, but it is not a photo of finning.

2) Maybe. From this picture alone, we can’t tell if what is happening is actually finning. If this is happening on a fishing boat and the carcass will be dropped over the side, then it is finning. It this is happening on a fishing boat, but the carcass will be landed separately, it is not finning. It this is happening on land, it is not finning. This last option is what’s really happening here (it isn’t finning, this takes place in a “shark processing factory” on land in South Africa) , but there’s no way to know that from just looking at the photo. It’s reasonable to use photos like this in anti-finning campaigns.

3) Maybe. Again, it’s impossible to tell from the picture. It likely was taken on a fishing boat, since the water is clearly visible. However, if the carcass is landed separately and this is a fishery where fins are managed according to a “fin ratio” plan, then this is not a case of finning. If the carcass is discarded, it is a case of finning. It’s reasonable to use photos like this in anti-finning campaigns as well.

4) Maybe. It isn’t possible to tell where shark fins came from just by looking at them. They may have come from an animal that was finned, they may have been landed separately from the associated carcasses according to a fin ratio, and they have come from animals that were landed with fins naturally attached. It’s reasonable to use photos like this in anti-finning campaigns, too.

5) Yes. These animals had their fins removed, and the rest of their bodies were dumped overboard. These poor sharks have definitely been finned. However, I hardly ever see photos like this (the only photo that shows a shark that has certainly been finned)  in shark finning awareness campaigns.

If you are going to take the time to “spread awareness”, please first make sure that you understand the basics of the issues you are trying to educate others about. Increasing the level of confusion and misconception that’s already out there only makes things worse for the oceans, and demonizing responsible fishing practices can undo decades of progress made by those who do understand the issues.

Author’s note: I will continue to respond to new points raised in comments on this post, but as is often the case in discussion threads with more than 50 comments, people are starting to raise points that have already been addressed. I’d like to invite those interested in continuing this discussion to check out the first “Blue Pints” Google+ Hangout between Andrew and I, in which we discussed shark fisheries, and to continue this discussion in the comment thread there. 

June 18, 2012 • 11:46 am