Thoughts on the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act

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.

Here’s what I like about this proposal.

1) The Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act does not imply that all shark fishing is always inherently unsustainable and bad. It focuses on the fisheries that are unsustainable and poorly managed without harming rule-following fishermen that take part in sustainable, well-managed fisheries in the US or elsewhere.

2) This proposal focuses on all shark (and skate, and ray) products. By doing this, it recognizes the reality that threats facing sharks and their relatives are multi-faceted and complex, and that the shark fin trade is not the only threat facing sharks. It also doesn’t ignore closely related fishes who face similar threats but get much less advocacy attention

3) There is a clear mechanism for how this bill could succeed in its goals. Poorly managed fisheries would have to improve their management practices or lose access to US markets, but if they improve their practices they will maintain access to US markets. This provides an incentive to improve, unlike approaches that would just remove the US from the global marketplace regardless of whether or not other nations improve their management practices. (I should note that as written, such improved management practices must include a prohibition on shark finning, so that’s good.) There’s also a proverbial carrot to go along with this stick – NOAA’s existing capacity building and technical expertise, which can be used to improve fisheries elsewhere.

That said, I do have some concerns about many of the details (or, in some cases, the lack thereof). This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, some of my colleagues have raised other concerns.

1) Where is the money for NOAA to evaluate and certify other country’s shark and ray fisheries going to come from? Several elements of past US shark conservation and fisheries management plans have yet to be fully implemented due to lack of funding. Budgets are tight in today’s D.C., and I wouldn’t want funding to do this to take away from funding to existing plans that are already demonstrating success. If the Congressmen supporting this bill can’t commit to fully funding all those other not-yet-implemented shark conservation and management plans while funding this, they need to at least work to ensure that this doesn’t take funds away from those other plans- and the advocacy organizations supporting this new policy need to work to hold them to this.

2) The definition of “sustainable management practices comparable to ours” needs to be written very, very carefully* to avoid World Trade Organization challenges. In many ways, the US has some of the most sustainable shark fisheries on Earth, but we’re behind the rest of the world in some important ways (like an overly permissive fin to carcass ratio for Smoothhounds off the east coast). If we tell another country that we are blocking imports of their products because they don’t do X, Y, and Z with their fisheries management, we need to make damn sure that we are doing X, Y and Z with our fisheries management, or else they can challenge us at the WTO and we would lose. Or, we could use this as incentive to finally improve some of our own practices to make the idea of “comparable management practices” unimpeachable, maybe? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

3) If the carrot/stick balance isn’t done quite right, this could result in annoying or angering other countries who have historically worked with us on international shark conservation and management issues in venues like CITES, the Convention on Migratory Species, and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations. There are certainly cases where getting a certain country to co-sponsor and support an RFMO resolution would save more sharks than not importing shark products from that country, but not importing shark products from that country could affect their willingness to co-sponsor and support RFMO resolutions. In some cases, this would need to be handled delicately.

4) The US really just doesn’t import that many shark and ray products from other countries. This means that most of the good that could come from this policy would be in the form of other countries improving their fisheries management practices so as not to lose access to our markets, not in the form of the import bans if other countries do not improve. If other countries just said “oh well, I guess we just can’t sell to the US anymore,” rather than improve their own fisheries management practices, the net reduction in shark mortality would be low.

If this bill is done right, it can help sharks by encouraging other countries to improve the sustainability of their fisheries, and I believe that this is a worthy goal with a plausible mechanism for success. Therefore, I am cautiously supporting this bill, and will be continuing to note my concerns throughout this process.

If you would like to support this bill yourself, there are two ways to do it.

  1. If you are a scientist with relevant expertise in marine science, fisheries, or conservation biology, you can sign this open letter organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society. I signed this, for what it’s worth.
  2. If you are not an expert but still want to show your support, the Wildlife Conservation Society has created an online petition that you can sign which will be used as part of their advocacy for this bill.


*Here is how the Act, as written, defines sustainable shark fisheries management practices:

“The regulations promulgated under subparagraph (A) shall establish criteria for determining whether a nation has and effectively enforces regulatory programs for the conservation and management of sharks, and measures to prohibit shark finning, that are comparable to those of the United States, including, at a minimum, a requirement that such programs—
“(i) be consistent with the national standards for fishery conservation and management set forth in section 301(a) of the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act (16 U.S.C. 1851(a));
“(ii) provide for regularly updated management plans, scientifically established catch limits, and bycatch assessments and minimization;
“(iii) include a program to prevent overfishing and to rebuild overfished stocks;
“(iv) require reporting and data collection;
“(v) be consistent with the International Plan of Action for Conservation and Management of Sharks of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; and
“(vi) include a mechanism to ensure that, if the nation allows landings of sharks by foreign vessels that are not subject to such programs of such nation, only shark products that comply with such programs are exported to the United States.”


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