Last week, officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) discovered a shrimp fishing boat in Florida waters with about 30-40 pairs of shark fins on board. There weren’t any shark bodies aboard the vessel, which likely means that the fins were removed from sharks, and then the finless sharks were tossed back into the ocean, where they would sink, immobilized, to the bottom of the ocean. This practice, known as “finning”, is illegal in U.S. due to its brutal nature and the fact that it facilitates fishermen in circumventing fishing quotas. Despite the ban, the recent discovery off the coast of Florida raises concerns that the U.S. market is financing finning.
The shrimp boat was about 20 miles northwest of Key West, but it’s not yet known where or how the boat sourced the shark fins that were found on board. Shortly after making the discovery, FWC officers alerted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the case is now being handled on the federal level by NOAA’s enforcement branch. “It is too soon to release specific details,” said NOAA spokeswoman Kim Amendol in an email. “However, no charges or arrests have been made since this is still under investigation.” While she didn’t disclose any more information, Amendol did explain that shark finning was banned by federal law in 2000, and that further federal regulations were passed in 2008 requiring that legally harvested shark be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached.
Notably, while finning itself is banned in U.S. waters, the U.S. trade in fins is not. And it remains legal in most states to remove fins from sharks once they have been brought to shore. Moreover, there is evidence that the U.S. domestic market plays a role in encouraging the practice of finning worldwide: a recent report from Oceana, the advocacy group, found that “five of the 11 countries that export fins to the United States have no shark finning bans in place, making it very likely that fins coming into the U.S. are from sharks that have been finned.”
“When we import them we have no idea if they came from sustainable shark fisheries or fisheries where they’re still finning,” said Mariah Pfleger, a scientist for Oceana, in an interview with The Miami Herald. The discovery of the shrimp boat off the coast of Florida further increases concerns that the U.S. is financing finning through its legal shark fin trade.
The total impact of shark finning is massive, with over 70 million sharks killed every year for their fins. The fins are dried and used as the key ingredient in shark fin soup, which is popular across parts of Asia, but is also consumed in the U.S. Scientists have warned that this level of shark culling is unsustainable, and that unless the shark fin trade is curbed, the integrity of entire ecosystems are at risk.
A bill was introduced to Congress earlier this year that would eliminate the U.S. shark fin trade. The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (H.R. 1456), which was introduced by Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), aims to ban the possession, sale, and purchase of shark fins in the United States. “The United States can set an example for the rest of the world by shutting down its market for shark fins, which are often harvested by leaving these animals to die a slow and painful death at the bottom of the ocean,” said Royce introducing the bill.
Despite enjoying bipartisan support, the bill faces opposition from the shark fishing industry, with industry lobbyists arguing that a ban on the export of shark fins would leave U.S. fishermen without a job. “This bill simply takes the U.S. fisherman and pretty much puts him out of business, only to reward our small portion of the international market to the bad actors,” said industry lobbyist Shaun Gehan in an interview with The Hill last October.
Oceana has voiced its support for the bill. In addition to condemning finning as a cruel practice, Oceana has cited evidence that consuming shark fins might be harmful to humans as they contain high levels of mercury and BMAA, a neurotoxin linked with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “The demand for shark fins is particularly harmful for sharks threatened with extinction,” said Lora Snyder, Oceana’s campaign director in a blog post. “And it’s becoming clear that eating fins might also pose serious health risks. It’s time once and for all that the U.S. enacts a nationwide fin ban.”
Oceana has also brought up the fact that ecotourism means that sharks are worth more alive than dead. In a recent study, Oceana found that for the state of Florida, revenue from shark tourism “totaled roughly $220 million and supported over 3,700 jobs in 2016. In contrast, the shark fishery in Florida generated only $960,000 in commercial landings in 2015.”
“It may seem crude to ask, ‘How much is a shark worth?’” wrote Oceana representative Andy Sharpless. “But the importance of sharks to Florida's economy demonstrates the tangible impact these animals have in the U.S., making the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act a necessary step to protect them.”