Shark finning, the process of removing shark fins at sea and dumping the rest of the body, is nearly universally opposed by conservation activists, scientific researchers and fisheries managers. In addition to being potentially inhumane (the shark is often still alive when dumped overboard,) this processing method is exceptionally wasteful and makes it very difficult for fisheries managers to get accurate species-specific catch data.
There are severals ways to stop shark finning. One is to ban fishing for sharks entirely, fins of sharks can’t be removed at sea if sharks aren’t caught in the first place. It is important to note that some well-intentioned activists use “stop shark finning” as a synonym for “stop shark fishing of any kind,” but that is unequivocally not what shark finning is and not what finning bans accomplish. The second method is through the use of fin to carcass ratios. Under these policies, fisherman can remove the fins of sharks at sea as long as the total weight of fins landed does not exceed a certain percentage (usually 3.5 to 5%) of the total weight of carcasses landed. This can still leave room for some undetected finning (these ratios vary by species and fin removal method) and still makes it difficult for managers to know how many of each species are being caught (sharks are more readily identifiable when their fins are intact). Finally, a method growing in popularity in recent years, which is generally considered to be a best practice of shark fisheries management, is the requirement of landing all caught sharks with “fins naturally attached.”
The 2010 Shark Conservation Act prohibits removal of fins at sea for all sharks landed in U.S. Waters, with a glaring exception for smooth dogfish, or smoothhound sharks. In an effort to ensure that fishermen aren’t performing the cruel practice of throwing a still-living but finless shark overboard, a fin:body ratio of 12% for smooth dogfish became law as part of this bill. This means that the total weight of smooth dogfish fins cannot be more than 12% of the total dressed weight of the bodies when the sharks are landed.
Some time ago I wrote a post questioning where this 12% ratio came from, especially since the best available published literature at the time suggested a ratio of only 3.5% for smooth dogfish. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Management Commission (ASMFC) responded, claiming that they had data backing up a find:body weight ratio of 7-12%. Now, thanks to the SEDAR stock assessment workshop for this species, the study conducted by the ASMFC is publicly available (albeit nearly four years after it was written into the law).
So where does this seemingly extremely high fin:body ratio come from? It depends on how you slice it.
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.
As you may have noticed from the previous post, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is proposing draft addendum to the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for coastal sharks to bring it in line with the current Federal regulations. These regulations are based on the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, which required all sharks fished in US waters to be landed with fins still attached… with the exception of a familiar yet under-studied species known as Mustelus canis, the smooth dogfish. These sharks can still be finned in Federal waters as long as the weight of fins does not exceed 12% of the weight of the finless carcasses. This exception was glaring not just because it singled out one species with a relatively limited range compared to other species in the fishery, but also brought out that seemingly absurd 12% fin-body weight ratio. The addendum is open for public comment until March 28th at 5 pm. With any luck, this post will help clarify some of the issues involved.