Photo Credit: Jessica King, Marine Photobank
I’ve written in the past about why shark fin bans might not be the best tool for the conservation and management of sharks. Though specific details vary, these so-called “blanket bans” typically make it illegal for anyone to buy, sell, or possess shark fins regardless of the source *. Additionally, to date most of these fin bans have taken place in a few U.S. states and Canadian towns. If the goal of these state-level fin bans is to reduce the supply of fins to the global market, proponents should consider that according to TRAFFIC, more than 95% of the supply of shark products comes from countries outside of the U.S. and Canada. Even if every U.S. state passed a fin ban, it would have a negligible direct impact on global supply. Additionally, the United States has some of the most sustainably managed shark fisheries in the world (hammerhead sharks and a few others are an exception). We want other countries to emulate out management practices, not to remove our management practices from the global marketplace.
If the goal of these local fin bans is to reduce global demand, proponents should consider that the overwhelming majority of the demand for shark fin soup is in China and Southeast Asia, where passing such bans will pose a significant challenge. Some proponents of fin bans say (after the negligible impact on supply and demand is pointed out) that fin bans help with “raising awareness of the problem of overfishing of sharks”. While these fin bans do result in (relatively) positive media coverage for shark conservation, “raising awareness” is not the publicly stated goal of these bans. If your goal is to educate people about a problem, educate people about the problem.
Instead of inflexible and ineffective fin bans that penalize fishermen who have adopted best practices * without impacting the global market, I’ve advocated for a science-based approach to sustainable shark management following the 10 basic principles in line with what has been laid out in the United Nations Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization’s International Plan of Action for Sharks and IUCN Shark Specialist Group guidance. These principles include banning finning of sharks by requiring that carcasses be landed whole (recall that finning is a specific fishing practice not synonymous with the fin trade), using science-based quotas to manage the fisheries of sharks whose populations can support a fishery, and restricting the harvest of species whose populations cannot.
Recently, the United States National Marine Fisheries Service (which, once again, manages some of the most sustainable shark fisheries on Earth) has started to officially speak out against state level fin bans.
Image from nero.NOAA.gov
Last August, two petitions were sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service from three conservation organizations (the Animal Welfare Institute, WildEarth Guardians and Friends of Animals). The petitions (available in their entirety here) requested that four species of skate be listed as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, and requested that critical habitat for these species be designated and appropriately protected. These species are the thorny skate, barndoor skate, winter skate, and smooth skate.
Due to both a directed fishery (skate wings are used for lobster trap bait, and also for food for a primarily-overseas market that includes Europe) and bycatch in bottom fisheries , Northwest Atlantic populations of these species have experienced serious declines in recent years. While some skate species have rebounded (for reasons that are not entirely clear), The thorny skate remains particularly threatened- the IUCN Red List considers the subpopulation off the Northeastern U.S. coast to be Critically Endangered. It is illegal for U.S. fishermen to keep thorny skates they catch (and has been since 2004), but they are commonly taken as bycatch in fisheries for the other skates and groundfish.
Yesterday, the National Marine Fisheries Service formally responded to the petition (thorny skate and other skates), and the news isn’t good for skates:
“After reviewing the information contained in the petition and information readily available in our files, we conclude that the petition fails to present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action concerning barndoor, smooth and/or winter skate may be warranted…We find that the petitions do not present substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned actions may be warranted. Accordingly, we will not initiate a review of the status of thorny skate at this time.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service listed several reasons why they believe these skates should not be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
In response to new analyses estimating that greater numbers of some skate species can be safely fished, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed an “emergency” increase in the catch limit for the Northeast Skate Complex Fishery. While its good news that some skate populations may be doing well enough to support increased fishing, this doesn’t tell the whole story of the Northeast Skate Complex.
The world of fisheries management is so full of laws and regulations that it’s no wonder many fishermen feel persecuted by the government. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see the National Marine Fisheries Service trying something new.