U.S. Senate passes Shark Conservation Act, but at what cost?

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog-cation to bring you some exciting news- today, the U.S. Senate passed the Shark Conservation Act!

The act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year, closes important loopholes in current U.S. shark management policy by banning the practice of removing fins * at sea (for almost all species, more on this later). It also provides a framework for Federal officials to work with our trading partners that don’t similarly protect sharks.

It was expect to easily pass the Senate, but as we reported earlier this fall, Republican firebrand Tom Coburn blocked it and related conservation legislation. Senator Coburn’s stated objection to the bill was that it would cost too much, but the estimated cost according to GovTrack is less than $1 per American taxpayer.

Image from NoFishLeft.Wordpress.com

Since there are some slight changes from the version that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, the modified bill now goes back to the House for a vote. Once that happens, the bill becomes law and President Obama can sign it. I’ve been told to expect the House to vote on it later this week, and it is supposed to pass easily, but we’ll see how it goes. Update- the legislation passed the House of Representatives and has been sent to the President.

Many conservation NGOs are thrilled with today’s events. Matt Rand, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign, had this to say:

“The Senate has acted decisively today to help protect sharks, the predators at the top of the global marine food chain. The Shark Conservation Act would once and for all end the practice of shark finning in U.S. waters and give the United States the credibility to persuade other nations and international fishery managers to follow suit….As our marine environment becomes more and more threatened, we need further safeguards to keep ecosystems and top predator populations healthy. Domestic protections alone will not save sharks. The U.S. should use this act to bolster its position when negotiating for increased international protections”

I’m not quite as excited as Matt is. The new version includes the following wording:

“[The updates]do not apply to an individual engaged in commercial fishing for smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis) in that area of the waters of the United States located shoreward of a line drawn in such a manner that each point on it is 50 nautical miles from the baseline of a State… unless the total weight of smooth dogfish fins landed or found on board a vessel to which this subsection applies exceeds 12 percent of the total weight of smooth dogfish carcasses landed or found on board.”

In other words, fishermen can still remove the fins of smooth dogfish at sea (and can now do so with a much higher fin:body weight ratio than before) . This was arguably was what holding up the bill in the first place (that it would cause problems for what is arguably the first sustainable elasmobranch fishery in the world). It was discussed by Andrew (here) and Chuck (here) in great detail. In brief, the Senate has decided that smooth dog fishermen are allowed to remove fins at sea as long as the weight of the fins landed isn’t more than 12% of the weight of the rest of the shark.

This 12% number appears to come from thin air, since the worldwide standard is around 5% and the National Marine Fisheries Service calculated that the fin to weight ratio for smooth dogs is around 3.5%.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this compromise. On one hand, it bans finning for almost all shark species. On the other hand, the 12% number isn’t based on solid science, and there is the possibility of other small coastal sharks like dogfish being finned (after all, many species of elasmobranchs look very similar). At a time when conservation NGOs are pushing for the European Union to change their shark management policy and ICCAT is finally open to shark conservation, I don’t know if we should be backing down on our original goal of “no finning whatsoever”. On the other other hand (Fiddler on the Roof? Anyone? Anyone?), I’d be pretty happy if the dogfish fishery became the first sustainable elasmobranch harvest, and this could help. I’ll think about this for the rest of our blog-cation, but in the meantime, I’m very curious to see what you all think about it.

*= Removing the fins at sea but keeping the whole shark. Cutting the fins off and dumping the rest of the shark at sea has been illegal in U.S. waters since 1993, though still occurs in much of the world.

As an interesting aside, the bill was sponsored by John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee. It had 33 co-sponsors, which included 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain and 3 other Republicans.

UPDATE– From the Washington Post:

“When asked whether the president would sign the legislation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said they were still examining the smooth dogfish provision and other portions of the bill.

“We are happy that Congress has taken up shark conservation,” said Eric Schwaab, NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator, in a statement. “It’s a priority for our agency. However, the bill’s carve-out of one specific shark fishery presents major enforcement and implementation challenges, and we need to work to fix this loophole.””



  1. Al Dove · December 21, 2010

    Let me see if I get this right. It sounds to me like they are saying that if you have, say, 1000kg of dogfish carcass on board, then you can only have <120kg of fins. If the fin weight of 1000kg of dogfish is actually closer to 35kg, then an unscrupulous fisherman could collect an additional 85kg of fins from other dogfish whose carcasses were (presumably) dumped at sea. Is that what you're saying is the loophole? If that's the case, then it seems an unfortunate legislative compromise but one that might, in a practical sense, be designed not to prevent finning but to prevent over-finning. The reason I say that is that the amount of finning is pegged to the whole-carcass fishery and – even if they fin more than the total animals they bring back – you still have to be a shark fisherman and not a shark fin fisherman. You don't have people going berzerk finning everything in sight and saying "screw the rest of the carcass". In other words, they're making it so that finning is done as part of a whole animal fishery and not as a standalone fishing practice. It sucks that finning has to happen at all, but by doing it this way, you'll eliminate the greediest folks and essentially make it so that it’s a premium product collected as part of an existing fishery. Maybe it’s a good interim solution on the way to a total ban sometime down the road.

  2. Rigel Best · December 21, 2010

    I think the “compromise” is disgusting and obviously politically motivated.

  3. Kirsty Davis · December 21, 2010

    You asked “Is it a good idea to protect most shark species at the (possible) expense of one?”
    In a perfect world the answer would obviously be a big “NO”, unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world. I think the word ‘possible’ comes into play here, limiting the species of sharks that could be barbarically slaughtered would be a good thing. Dont get me wrong I feel very sorry for all of those smooth Dogfish sharks, but preserving the ecosystem may mean sacrificing one species for the good of all….as much as that makes me sick.

  4. Chuck · December 21, 2010

    As far as sharks go, smooth dogfish are among those most likely to be able to sustain a fishery. They grow much faster and mature much younger than even most other small coastal sharks (5 years to maturity for female smooth dogfish as opposed to 12 for female spiny dogfish according to current data). It sucks to see any shark at all the subject of a major fishery, but having the exception for smooth dogfish as opposed to any of the larger, slower-growing sharks is preferable to no finning ban at all.
    Unless I’m mistaken the high ratio actually comes from a study by the NC DMF. I’ll look that up and write about it when I get a chance.

    • WhySharksMatter · December 21, 2010

      “As far as sharks go, smooth dogfish are among those most likely to be able to sustain a fishery.”


      “Unless I’m mistaken the high ratio actually comes from a study by the NC DMF. I’ll look that up and write about it when I get a chance. ”

      Please let me know, I’m very curious about it.

  5. Craig Nazor · December 21, 2010

    This is a disgusting compromise, but if the devil has your daughter hanging over the abyss and demands a thousand dollars not to drop her, there is just little choice. So I say accept the compromise, but I will make sure to say that I don’t like it, and I will redouble my efforts to be certain I purchase NO PRODUCTS which use any part of a shark. Which, by the way, would make an interesting post – what modern products use sharks, particularly those that might not be labeled as such? This might include things like cosmetics, fertilizers, and as food for other animals that omnivores might end up consuming.

    • WhySharksMatter · December 22, 2010

      Good to hear from you, Craig! How’s life?

      “So I say accept the compromise, but I will make sure to say that I don’t like it”

      So you’re saying that organizations like Pew, which I quoted in the post as being extremely pleased with the compromise, are not handling this the right way?

    • Craig Nazor · December 25, 2010

      Life was extremely busy this fall (I taught an overload). Thank goodness for the break!

      Politics is “the Art of the Possible.” There is a significant portion of the human population that will never see past dollar signs. Pew, being a quasi-political organization, wants to be seen as a “glass-is-half-full” organization for public relations reasons, so they will graciously accept what they can get. In other words, I would hesitate to judge Pew’s real opinion on their public response to this decision.

      This, however, doesn’t assure that the political compromise was based on science, or that this will be enough to save sharks from extinction. It may in fact only be a gesture in the right direction.

      I just know that I personally will not be “pleased’ until shark populations are increasing, not decreasing.

      Merry Christmas!

    • Craig Nazor · December 25, 2010

      After reading all the posts, I would specifically point out the question of ethics in this decision, which is virtually impossible to define scientifically. The outrage to me of the dogfish decision, in addition to the fact that the regulations might not be sustainable, is the horrendous cruelty of tossing still-living sharks back into the ocean with their fins cut off. Even if it is still technically illegal, this law still makes that hard to enforce with dogfish.

      If people were doing the equivalent of finning to dogs or cats, and people were finding dying pets with all their legs severed lying by the roadside, the perpetrators would be thrown so far back in jail, they would be getting their beans served with a peashooter, and even then, only if they survived the lynching.

      Sharks, well, not so much.

      Might there be room for a decent bit of outrage for scenes like this?:


      Keep in mind that this motivation is a significant factor to those of us who do not eat meat. Scientifically, it is easy to show that there is a wide spectrum of degree of empathy for the suffering of other living beings from individual to individual.

      One of the defining charatersitics of psychopaths is that they lack empathy. Personally, I would feel none too good about living next to a shark-finner…

    • Southern Fried Scientist · December 26, 2010

      Hi Craig, welcome back. Good to see you again.

      I’m not quite as disappointed about this compromise as Dave is. It’s not perfect, but as you said, politics is all about compromise, and though the smooth dogfish exemption is definitely a black mark, the vast majority of sharks got more protection.

      I’ve talked to a few smooth dogfish fishermen, and what I’m hearing is that finning at sea is a time issue for them – there’s a lot of down time on the boat, so they process at sea, which includes finning (usually, but not always, on dead sharks). In general (but grain-o-salt rules apply) they are not dumping the carcass at sea. Dogfish fins are valuable, but dogfish bodies are valuable too, so they are landing both.

      Does this mean they should get an exception? No, I think the exception is absurd. But the reality is that the exception will probably not change the dogfish stocks, which, as pointed out above, is one of the few in recovery (even before the no-fin ban).

      Where this new bill fails is as a diplomatic tool. We lose the ability to force other countries to adopt a universal no-finning ban when we have exceptions to ours.

  6. Peter Butler · December 22, 2010

    This is ridiculous, shark finning is one of the worst forms of food gathering ever thought of, it should be banned for all species. Under this compromise,smooth dogfish sharks will be extinct in a couple of years. A damn shame, they almost got it right.

    • WhySharksMatter · December 22, 2010

      “Under this compromise,smooth dogfish sharks will be extinct in a couple of years.”

      Well, probably not, but their populations may suffer greatly.

  7. Matty Wilson · December 22, 2010

    I think the compromise stinks and hope for a vegan future for all our sakes. The time of gluttons needs to come to an end. We human beings do not need animals to survive therefore IMO it is barbaric and murderous activity to fish at all. I think it is a terrible compromise especially for the victims involved. Go vegan for your own health and for that of the planet and all those inhabiting it. We can ethically harvest plants for food:)

    • WhySharksMatter · December 22, 2010

      “it is barbaric and murderous activity to fish at all.’

      That might be a little extreme, Matty. Most conservationists have no problem with sustainable fishing, and you can count the authors of this blog on that list.

  8. Anne Purser · December 22, 2010

    Do people actually eat Shark ? I suppose if its a form of food I would relunctantly have to say yes, agree to save all other species of Shark, But limit the amount to be fished. This would hopefully not deplete stocks and keep the species from exstinction Later perhaps lobbying to stop all Shark fishing could begin again. Unfortunately mans greed means we don’t live in an ideal world.

    • WhySharksMatter · December 22, 2010

      “Do people actually eat Shark?”

      Yup, particularly smooth dogfish. It’s used in fish and chips. The fins are used in shark fin soup.

  9. Louise Holst Hemmingsen · December 22, 2010

    I thought finning was already banned. I thought it only occured in developing countries, where legislation was not upheld.. What an awful new insight. But thanks anyway, it is nice to have you to teach us.

    • WhySharksMatter · December 22, 2010

      “I thought finning was already banned”

      It has been illegal to cut the fins off a shark and dump the rest of the body at sea in U.S. waters for some time, but it was legal to fin at sea and save the bodies. Now, for the most part, you need to land the shark whole.

  10. Rebecca Ballard · December 22, 2010

    I was just wondering, since it is only bans finning at sea for many species, in theory couldn’t fisherman still catch sharks, bring them into shore, and fin them there? Since they had to technically keep the bodies prior to this, rather than dumping them, wouldn’t that only be a slight departure from their current finning practices, and an easy one at that? Thanks!

    • WhySharksMatter · December 22, 2010

      “couldn’t fisherman still catch sharks, bring them into shore, and fin them there?”

      Yes. That’s what we’re hoping will happen. If you use the whole shark and fish the species in a sustainable manner, most conservationists have no issue with selling the fins, too. The issue is when they JUST use the fins, which is really wasteful.

    • Dovi · January 5, 2011

      Finning at sea saves fisherman processing time after they return to port, and since time is money, there are economic repercussions for the fishing industry. I, and fortunately many others, feel that this is a small price to pay for conservation. Having the fins landed still attached to the bodies makes it much easier to enforce shark finning regulations, as less time needs to be spent counting and also avoids issues of species identification. This may seem like a small departure from the previous regulation, but it has important impacts for both fishers and managers.

  11. Frazer · December 22, 2010

    I believe that the whole proccess of shark fishing is barbaric and alters the trophic levels in the seas. shark finning on the other hand is worse and creates a great deal of waste, a great deal of distress to the shark and to be honest myself. The passing of this act would be a great achievement for the majority of shark species as you can only fit a certain amount of whole sharks on a boat whereas you can fit a hell of a lot fins in the same space, though i’m not condoning the possible exploitation of one species it is the lesser of two evils.

  12. Aria Sim · December 23, 2010

    Well, nothing’s perfect. It helps to think that while MOST shark species can be saved, the one at the disadvantage has a higher chance of survival in fisheries. I guess that’s a way of easing the situation. Of course protection of ALL species would be better but we’ll keep working at it. We have to, right?

  13. Julie Kinnear · December 24, 2010

    I completely agree with Aria Sim. Partial success can be a great success too and considering this issue I think this is exactly the case. On the other hand, I would like to meet the politicians, who halted the original version face to face and ask some serious questions about their motivation…

  14. J. Speaks · December 26, 2010

    This is best news I’ve heard all year. Despite the fact that M. canis is apparently exempt from the protections this will garner, I believe it is a great step forward in protecting those species that are at higher risk of overfishing (namely the larger pelagics).

    While the possibility for misidentification still remains (and it will happen, unless there are shark biologists working on every fishing boat), it will be hard to mistake a hammerhead, or sandbar for a smooth dogfish. I do hope we are able to find out what prompted the increase in fin-to-body ratio, as that seems like an incredibly dramatic jump from the original 5%. There needs to be a damn good reason to make a staggering adjustment like that.

    But ultimately, I am pleased to see this finally written into law. Better late than never!

  15. ron william ten brink · December 30, 2010


  16. Sam · January 3, 2011

    I agree with the general consensus that the loophole sucks.

    However, it is a good step. A lot of species will benefit from the (almost) blanket ban, and lawmakers who, in the future, would want to create a blanket ban on finning will have a lot less to do and a lot more ammunition to use, once we get data on (presumably) how well species are recovering.

    You know, assuming Congress starts using data and evidence to make decisions.

Comments are closed.