Reader mail: Sustainable shark finning?

Our latest reader mail comes from my friend Mike, who writes for the conservative political blog SaveTheGop. Though we don’t agree on much, he’s usually a reasonable guy. His question concerns a post I recently wrote about Hawaii’s proposed bill to ban the sale of shark fins within their state.

“So what about fins from sharks legally caught? I don’t suppose there is a way to certify if a fin came from a legally caught shark or was just cut off a live one netted at sea.

I think worldwide many fisheries are going to collapse unless there is more effective regulation similar to what was done a few years back in Iceland with the cod fishery and in Alaska with King and Snow Crab. Roughly 100 million sharks were harvested last year (David you can correct me if that number is way off, I’m not the expert). Some species have extremely robust population numbers so banning all shark fishing seems a bit extreme to me. I think certain species should definitely be illegal to catch and sell.

What if you could only sell fins that had been taken off legally caught sharks at the dock under supervision of the government vs the illegal and wasteful finning of sharks at sea and dumping the bodies? I think strong regulation in US waters would do more to stop the illegal finning and would shut down the massive black market in shark fins. Go into any Chinatown in this country and you can buy black market shark fins. If that demand could be satisfied by a sustainable harvest from already caught sharks it might save millions of sharks from death.”

-Michael Shutze, Jr.

There are a lot of interesting points here, and I’ll try my best to respond to them all.

It is indeed almost impossible to tell if a fin came from a legally-caught shark or not. The best tools we have can identify what species of shark a fin came from (which sometimes identifies an endangered species of shark that shouldn’t be caught at all) and can sometimes tell what region of the world a shark was caught in (which sometimes tells us that illegal fishing is going on). However, a lot of illegal finning takes place undetected.

In general, though, I don’t think that there should be legal finning at all. Because of the low population sizes of upper trophic level predators and certain life history characteristics of sharks (they are slow to reach reproductive age and they have few young), most species of sharks are extremely vulnerable to fishing pressure. Essentially every time there has been a legal fishery for sharks, it has collapsed within a few decades.

I’m not against fishing in general, but certain species (like most sharks) just can’t support a fishery. Also, shark fin soup isn’t exactly a staple food item for the poor- it’s an expensive delicacy, and the fin itself is made of cartilage… so it adds absolutely no flavor to the soup.

You mention that some species have extremely robust population sizes which could support fishing. This is true, but the overwhelming majority of shark species do not. Also, shark fisheries are a management nightmare because many shark species look extremely similar to each other- including some threatened species that look an awful lot like species with large populations.

Your idea about selling fins from already-caught sharks rather than targeting sharks for finning is an interesting one, but it would also be a nightmare to enforce. People could simply claim that the shark was already dead and we’d have no way to prove or disprove what they say.

In short, if someone came up with a sustainable shark fin fishery, I’d be somewhat supportive of it, but life history characteristics of many shark species, the black market nature of the fin trade, and the difficulty of telling certain species apart make that extremely unlikely. The “somewhat” nature of my support comes from the fact that shark finning is still extremely wasteful and inhumane, and it provides a delicacy and not a staple.

As for the “100 million” number- yes, that number is often cited, but the most scientific estimate we have is “as high as 73 million” sharks killed each year for their fins. Still a lot, but probably not quite 100 million.

Thanks for your questions. I hope I’ve answered them, but if not, pester me in the comments section.

If anyone else has a question that you’d like one of your Fry-entists to answer, shoot one of us an e-mail with the subject “Reader Mail”.



  1. Mike · April 5, 2010

    Thanks David, I hadn’t thought about the similarity of many shark species in terms of how you would enforce specie specific quotas or outright bans.

    I also didn’t realize that shark fisheries had been tried before but without much success. Did they use an individual transferable quota system? I keep reading how well these have worked to save some fisheries.

    I have another question. I like shark steak, it is one of my favorite fish to eat in fact. I eat it rarely because it is hard to find around where I live but if I lived near the coast it would be a larger part of my diet. Is the shark I would normally find in the Atlanta fish markets or the grocery store from a species that is under pressure like Tiger sharks or from a species that could actually support being harvested?

  2. Nathan Ciurzynski · April 5, 2010

    No finning should be allowed. Shark populations are in huge decline across a wide range of species. It’s wasteful and inhumane.

  3. Ben · April 5, 2010

    Doesn’t the sustainable fishery that Mike suggests prevent the inhumane and wasteful nature in the first place. If, like he says, these things are finned on the dock, then they’re probably not alive anymore(they’ve been in a ship’s hold for a couple of days) so they don’t die of suffocation or bleeding out like the ones finned and thrown overboard. And if you’re bringing the whole thing in chances are you are going to find some use for the rest of the meat as well-so probably not as wasteful as the current fin fishery.

    As for the life history characteristics these are certainly of concern, but hardly unique to sharks-these are problems fisheries managers should be working towards solving.

  4. Bioloquest · April 21, 2010

    I think its important to pick which side of the fence we are on. Either allow shark finning (which would be incredibly detrimental and unfortunate to say the least) or ban it all together. Enforcing a medium of the two leaves too much gray area to convict those in their wrongdoing. Although, “What if you could only sell fins that had been taken off legally caught sharks at the dock under supervision of the government,” is an attempt at bettering a worsening situation, this is simply not realistic. I have trouble imaging a “government official” posted up at every fishing port regulating the terms of finning that days “legal catch.” WhySharksMatter hits the nail on the head; “The ‘somewhat’ nature of my support comes from the fact that shark finning is still extremely wasteful and inhumane, and it provides a delicacy and not a staple.”

    By banning the finning of sharks altogether, enforcement will be easier improved, and we may then rest a little more assured that shark populations are facing less danger.

  5. Dudeguy · April 22, 2010

    There isn’t a possibility for an in between stance on the issue. We have to take the stance of banning finning due to its detrimental causes to sharks. It would not be sustainable for the sharks to live. The political ramifications might be great ecologically but we would save a species.

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