In 2011, the world’s first fishery for sharks was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council*. The British Columbia spiny dogfish fishery made major news in fisheries management and ocean conservation world, where the possible existence of sustainable shark fisheries has been debated intensely. A few years later, the fishery voluntarily withdrew their certification, and never publicly said why.
I wanted to know what happened with this scientific mystery. So, with the help of Chuck Bangley and Catherine Macdonald and funding support from the Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellowship program, I organized a research expedition to find out. The results of our expedition can be found in our new paper (LINK,) (OPEN ACCESS AUTHOR COPY) but in this blog post, I’d like to explain what we did, what we found, and why we think it’s important.
Cuttings (short and sweet):
Spoils (long reads and deep dives):
Please add your own cuttings and spoils in the comments!
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A few weeks ago, H.R. 5248, The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, was introduced into Congress. The purpose of this bill is to “encourage a science-based approach to significantly reduce the overfishing and unsustainable trade of sharks, rays and skates around the world and prevent shark finning,” according to a press release from Mote Marine Lab.
Though the devil is always in the details, and I’ll get into those below, here is a general overview of how this would work. The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act would direct NOAA Fisheries to evaluate the fisheries management practices of other shark and ray fishing nations. This is similar in principle to other things NOAA is already doing, and a similar role for NOAA was included in the 2010 Shark Conservation Act (but has yet to be implemented).
Nations that have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours (or certain fisheries associated with those nations, even if other fisheries are less well managed) will get a formal certification of their sustainable management practices, and nothing will change for them. Nations (or fisheries) that are found to not have sustainable fisheries management practices comparable to ours will not be allowed to have those products imported into the US and sold in our markets until their management practices improve. In the meantime, they’ll have access to NOAA’s existing capacity building resources and expertise to improve their own practices.
I support much of what this bill is trying to do, but I have some significant concerns about some of the current phrasing and plan for implementation.
Logo by Ethan Kocak
Cuttings (short and sweet):
In 1999, government officials from all over the world gathered in Rome for a meeting of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Committee on Fisheries. The Committee meets every two years, but one of the numerous outputs of this meeting was particularly significant, at least for sharks. Based on years of consultation and discussion by experts, the group agreed on a formal set of general principles that should make up sustainable and well-managed shark fisheries.
These 10 principles, part of a larger International Plan of Action for Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) , have helped shape more than a decade of scientific research and management priorities for the chondrichthyan fishes. When properly implemented and enforced, they allow people to use sharks (and rays and skates and chimeras, included in the IPOA-Sharks definition of “sharks”) as a natural resource while keeping populations healthy and allowing depleted stocks to recover.
According to the IPOA-Sharks, a national shark plan should aim to:
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.