A request to environmentalists and journalists discussing shark fin ban legislation

Many of the U.S. state-level shark fin bans which make it illegal to buy, sell, or possess shark fins include exemptions for smooth and spiny dogfish, i.e. by far the most common species of sharks caught by U.S. fishermen. Some of these fisheries have significant conservation concerns associated with them. Much of this fishing is not currently subject to catch limits or other basic management

You would never know that most locally caught sharks are not affected at all by fin bans by reading most of the action alerts that some conservation organizations send out to encourage ocean lovers to support these laws, by following most of the media coverage of these laws, or by reading most people’s excited posts after these laws pass. Many of these inaccurately say that shark fin bans “protect all sharks.”

I have a request to make to the conservation organizations supporting these laws, journalists covering them, and the shark and ocean lovers celebrating when they pass. If you want to support laws with an exemption for dogfish sharks, that’s fine, but let’s have an open and honest discussion about why you are doing this instead of just acting like it isn’t happening.

First of all, please don’t say that state-level shark fin bans “protect all sharks” when really they affect “all sharks except for the ones that are by far the most common species of sharks caught by U.S. fishermen”. Also, the actual protection that they offer is extremely limited (they only affect what you can do with already-dead sharks, not how many sharks are killed,) but that’s a discussion for another time.

Are you supporting these exemptions because U.S. shark fisheries are better managed than many international shark fisheries, and therefore we don’t need to be as concerned about them? That may be true in general, but some of these dogfish fisheries are subject to some of the weakest shark finning bans in the world, and some don’t yet have quotas regulating them. And if that is your motivation, will future exemptions be made for other sustainable U.S. shark fisheries, such as, for example, Gulf of Mexico blacktip sharks?

Are you supporting these exemptions because the laws wouldn’t otherwise pass due to political strength of local fishing lobbies, arguing that protecting some but not all sharks is better than no protection? Or are you supporting it because you don’t want to cause economic disruption to U.S. fisheries? If so, then why not change the exemptions so they exempt any sharks caught by U.S. fishermen instead of making them species-focused?

Are you supporting these exemptions because you personally care more about the conservation status of larger, more charismatic species of sharks? If your primary concern is the cruelty associated with the shark fin trade, then is cruelty to smaller sharks somehow not as bad as cruelty to larger sharks? Along these lines, everyone knows that skates and rays face similar, and in many cases worse, conservation threats than sharks, including skate “winging,” right?

Are you supporting a law with an exemption for dogfish because you assume that a later law will fix this problem and protect dogfish? If so, you should note that this has yet to happen for any U.S. state-level shark fin ban with dogfish exceptions, and that over the four years since the federal Shark Conservation Act exempted Atlantic smooth dogfish, state finning rules for this species got incrementally weaker, with no correction in sight.

I’m not opposed to conservation policies that protect some species but not others in the name of realpolitik, and targeting species and fisheries of greater conservation concern for extra protection makes sense if these criteria are properly selected. What I am opposed to is incorrectly claiming that a law does a lot more than it really does, because this creates the false impression that a serious problem has been solved. Remember, #DogfishRSharks2!