Shark Regulation Updates

While Shark Week was raging along, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) approved a new round of shark fishery regulations for public comment.  Quite a bit has happened since the last time we covered U.S. shark fisheries here, so it’s time for a bit of a recap before discussing how the latest developments affect sharks and the people who fish for them.

The latest proposed regulations represent a combination of making state-level shark management consistent with the Federal Shark Conservation Act of 2010 and Amendment 5a to the Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species management plan (which covers sharks, tunas, and billfish in U.S. Atlantic waters).  The Shark Conservation Act essentially banned finning at sea in U.S. shark fisheries, with the noteworthy and controversial exception (and oddly high fin:body ratio) of smooth dogfish.  Amendment 5a, as proposed back in November, is an attempt to start managing sharks on a species-by-species basis rather than the previous “fishery complex” scheme that lumped several species with very different life histories (and ability to tolerate fishing pressure) together.  The proposed rules affected both recreational and commercial fisheries, and officially separate out large hammerheads from the Large Coastal Shark complex (something already done for sandbar sharks) and blacknose sharks from the Small Coastal Shark complex.  A proposed recreational size limit for all sharks designed to protect juvenile dusky sharks was later withdrawn for reconsideration after overwhelming negative feedback during the public comment period.

That brings us up to speed.  On the smooth dogfish (now officially called smoothhound sharks by managers to avoid confusion with spiny dogfish) side, ASMFC approved the higher fin:body weight ratio and has begun setting up the infrastructure for a targeted fishery, including allocating state shares of the quota.  The big winners are New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina with about 19, 35, and 28 % of the quota, respectively.  These states currently land the most smoothhound sharks.  While quota allocation is being laid out, managers are still working out exactly what that quota will be.  Disconcertingly, smoothhound sharks are currently being fished with no quota whatsoever.

In happier and more recent news, the latest rules proposed by the ASMFC are largely those that have already been approved on a Federal level for Amendment 5a.  Namely, blacknose sharks and large hammerheads (great, scalloped, and smooth) are being given their own separate quotas and managed outside of the Large and Small Shark complexes.  In addition, a recreational limit of 78 inches (6.5 feet) is being proposed for all large hammerheads.

To give you an idea of what the hammerhead size limit looks like, this shark would likely be right at it. Image from

The new size limit and separate quotas should help limit hammerheads’ exposure to fishing pressure.  In addition, a higher size limit for hammerheads is much easier to enforce than a blanket limit of nearly 8 feet for all sharks, and hammerheads are much easier to tell apart from more hardy sharks like blacktips and bulls.

The state-level rules for coastal sharks are open for public comment and will be until 5 pm on September 25th.  The proposed rules for hammerheads and blacknose sharks seems downright decent to me, so I really don’t have any commentary there except for support.  You may feel differently, or maybe you want to let ASMFC know you think these rules are a-okay.  Instructions for submitting public comments can be found at the bottom of this page, and remember to keep your comments civil, well-informed, and relevant.

Regarding smoothhound sharks, as of now the next step is setting the quota, so be ready to advocate for something science-based when the time comes.


  1. MakoMike · August 15, 2013

    Two comments:
    1) The size limit rule proposed by NMFS wre unworkable from a recreational point of view, since the size limit applied to all sharks, and finding an 8 foot long mako or thresher, which are the primary targets, is just about impossible.

    2) the fin rule with respect to smooth dogfish should be acceptable and also be extended to spiny dogfish. No one “fins” dogfish, but they do cut the fins off on the way back into port, to cut down the wasted time on the trip back in.

    • David Shiffman · August 15, 2013

      Mike, a 12% fin ratio is biologically absurd and has a lot of potential for abuse by fishers.

      The best practice is for all sharks to be landed with fins naturally attached, no exceptions.

    • Chuck Bangley · August 16, 2013

      Thanks for the comments Mike.

      I actually agree with you that the 8 foot limit for all sharks was a little absurd, especially applied to sharks like makos and threshers that are very easy to tell apart from duskies. It would have also effectively cut off the inshore/nearshore fishermen from keeping common species like blacktips, since an 8-foot blacktip would be a real monster for that species. That said, something needs to be done about misidentification among rec fishermen because it doesn’t take much of a Google image search to find people happily landing “huge blackips” or “monster bulls” that are definitely duskies.

      As far as smooth dogfish fins go, the closest any study comes to that 12% fin:body weight ratio is a state-level survey in New Jersey that found a ratio of 7-12% from some pretty scrawny juveniles. That study doesn’t include the mature sharks landed in Virginia and North Carolina that actually make up the bulk of the fishery. A scientifically sound way to pick a ratio would have been to a.) include all size classes of smooth dogs and b.) base the ratio off an average of fin:body weights instead of taking the maximum outlier and running with it.

      The problem here is that because the smoothhound fishery goes by weight of fins vs. weight of bodies, no one’s checking to make sure all those fins actually belong to those bodies. While most fisherman do process smooth dogs at sea to save time at the dock, this policy is practically begging dishonest fishermen to sneak extra fins in, possibly from other species (it would take a sharp eye to distinguish fins from say, blacknose or juvenile sandbar sharks from smooth dogfish fins once they’re off the body). What’s worse, if a fisherman really wants to pass those extra fins off as smooth dogs they’ll more than likely be coming off of juvenile sharks.

  2. MakoMike · August 16, 2013

    While I appreciate your concerns, I think they are misplaced. First of all dogfish processors usually buy by total weight, so there is no premium to the fisherman to land extra fins. Secondly, dogfish fins just aren’t worth much of a premium over the rest of the fish. The prices that the processors are receiving for spiny dogfish fins are around 80 cents per pound, so the fisherman would, even if they could sell only fins, only receive less than 40 cents per pound, while the whole fish generally brings 25 to 35 cents per pound. So there really isn’t much of an incentive there to cheat.

    • David Shiffman · August 16, 2013

      If no one is going to cheat, then why not support a science-based rule that prohibits cheating? If everyone is already doing that as you claim, what’s the harm?

    • Chuck Bangley · August 16, 2013

      It’s not necessarily landing more dogfish fins that worries me. Fins can be higher or lower grade on the market based on species, and if I recall correctly smooth and spiny dogfish fins are considered fairly low grade (correct me if I’m wrong there). While there may not be incentive to land extra dogfish fins, there may be an incentive to fin other species with higher-grade fins and pass those off as “smoothhound fins.” If you’ve got an unscrupulous fish house to sell to you’ve got a recipe for a black market for shark fins, and one that would be pretty tough to bust.

    • MakoMike · August 16, 2013

      But there is no incentive to land fins of any type, when the fishermen are being paid based on the total weight with no differentiation between fins and logs. BTW – you are correct in that dogfish fins are the lowest grade of shark fins.

    • Chuck Bangley · August 16, 2013

      Does the same price for fins and logs only apply to the dogfish fisheries? Fishermen I’ve worked with in the coastal shark fishery have definitely gotten different prices for fins and logs for the non-dogfish species in the past (that may not be the case now with the fins-attached rule for those species) and the fin grade made a difference too. My worry is that you get a few fish houses willing to abuse the smoothhound exception and pay fishermen more for higher-grade fins and suddenly there’s an incentive to land fins from other species with the smoothhound catch. Those fins still fit within the 12% ratio and unless you have an observer ID’ing each individual fin as it’s landed, it becomes very easy to set up an under-the-counter trade for non-dogfish fins. Right now this is a hypothetical (I hope), but if it’s occurred to me and other shark folks that it can be done, it’s definitely occurred to commercial fishermen. I’d say 90% of fishermen I’ve worked with are great people who genuinely care about the resource, but we both know that there are some real pirates out there who are great at exploiting loopholes in the regulations. And this is potentially a huge loophole.

  3. MakoMike · August 16, 2013

    The potential harm is to penalize fishermen who aren’t cheating. As you well know, fishery “science” is often wrong, in fact I think it does a disservice to the word to call it “science.” If fishermen aren’t selling fins separately, what’s the need for any limitation on how they land the fish?

    • David Shiffman · August 16, 2013

      If people aren’t cheating, a regulation that minimizes cheating should have no impact. In this case, if people are actually landing no more fins than they are associated carcasses, then changing the fin:carcass ratio to something actually rooted in reality would not impact how many sharks they are allowed to catch. It would only impact cheaters.

      And despite your insults of an entire field, science-based fisheries management is a key component of sustainable fisheries that make sure we have these resources for future fishers. We know what happens when we let fishers take whatever they want with no rules, regulations or restrictions- the fishery collapses and fishers are out of work.

    • MakoMike · August 16, 2013

      No one is saying that there should be no rules, but you and I and the rest of the world know that “fisheries science” is wrong almost as wrong as its right. We can debate that if you like in a different thread and not derail this one.

      My point is that, right now, the way the fishery operates, there really is no need for any rule. The fishermen land the fins and the logs and get paid the same price for both. So there is incentive for any cheating with respect to fins. The “rule” smacks of politics where the ASMFC decided to throw the anti-shark fin groups a bone.

      Explain to me how any rule, “rooted in [questionable] science” or not, is warranted when there is no problem.

  4. MakoMike · August 17, 2013

    “Does the same price for fins and logs only apply to the dogfish fisheries?” Obviously the smooth dogfish fishery is still in its infancy, but right now as far as smooths and spinys the one price applies. I know it doesn’t work the same in other shark fisheries. But my point is, right now there is no incentive to land extra fins so why do we need a rule? IOW if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. 🙂

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