Shark Finning Banned in U.S. Waters

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 27, 2000 (ENS) - Shark finning - the wasteful practice of slicing the fins from a shark and returning the dead or dying animal to the sea - is now banned in all United States waters. President Bill Clinton signed a bill banning shark finning on Tuesday.


White shark in the U.S. Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (Photo by Scot Anderson courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The "Shark Finning Prohibition Act" (HR 5461) prohibits the taking of sharks for the fins alone. The legislation also provides for the initiation of international negotiations to prohibit shark finning around the world, and authorizes research to conserve shark populations.

"The Administration has actively supported the prohibition of shark finning because of the harmful impact on sharks and shark populations," said President Clinton. "The practice has been administratively banned in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. H.R. 5461 will establish the ban in law and extend it to the Pacific Ocean."

"Only through international cooperation can effective management be ensured for sharks, especially on the high seas," Clinton continued. "The United States will intensify efforts to convince other countries to join in prohibiting shark finning."

Since 1993, U.S. law has prohibited shark finning in the federal waters of the U.S. Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. But in the U.S. Pacific Ocean where shark finning is still practiced, the number of sharks killed only for their fins has grown dramatically.

In 1992, a reported 2,289 sharks were finned in the Central and Western Pacific fishery, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).


Shark fins on sale in Hong Kong market. (Two photos by Brad Wetherbee courtesy IUCN Shark Specialist Group)
Last year, fishermen in those waters caught a total of 78,091 blue sharks - more than a 2,500 percent increase - of which 58,268 were brought on board their boats. Of these, 57,286 were finned and just 982 whole fish were retained.

The NMFS has called shark finning, a "wasteful of valuable shark resources" and a "threat to attaining the conservation objectives of fishery management."

Sharks are among the most vulnerable species in the ocean. Their slow growth, late maturity and small number of offspring leave them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, pollution and other threats.

Shark finning feeds the Asian market for shark fin soup. The fins make up between one and five percent of a shark's bodyweight, meaning that 95 to 99 percent of the shark is going to waste.

The bill does not ban the sale of fins, but prohibits landing or possessing them without the entire shark carcass in all U.S. federal waters. As most fishermen lack the storage capacity to transport the shark carcasses to shore, the bill effectively bans most finning.

The Shark Finning Prohibition Act directs the Secretaries of State and Secretary of Commerce to work together to stop the global shark fin trade. This requires the active engagement of more than 100 countries to reduce the demand for shark fins and other shark products.

"International measures are a critical component of achieving effective shark conservation," said Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the California Republican who authored the bill.

"Today is the end of a long personal struggle to stop this abhorrent practice," Cunningham said.


Shark fins on sale in Hong Kong.
The bill authorizes a Western Pacific longline fisheries cooperative research program to provide information for shark stock assessments. This includes identifying fishing gear and practices that minimize incidental catch of sharks and ensure maximum survivorship of released sharks by providing data on the international shark fin trade.

"This important provision was included at the request of the Senate to complement our shark conservation efforts," said Cunningham.

The Shark Finning Prohibition Act had strong support from many environmental groups, including the Ocean Wildlife Campaign (OWC), a coalition that includes the Center for Marine Conservation, National Audubon Society, National Coalition for Marine Conservation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund.

"The vulnerability of sharks to overfishing and the massive mortality associated with finning made achieving a finning ban a top priority for the OWC and its member organizations," said Dr. David Wilmot, OWC director.

The bill was also supported by the State of Hawaii Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the American Sportfishing Association, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Sportfishing Association of California, the Cousteau Society and the Western Pacific Fisheries Coalition.

But the Honolulu based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WESPAC) has resisted pressure from the NMFS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the recommendation of the House of Representatives to ban shark finning.

The Council says there is no evidence of a decline in numbers of blue shark, the species most often finned.


The Kelly Ann, a Hawai'i based longline fishing vessel (Photo courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service)
Most of the finning is a byproduct of Hawaiian longline fishing for tuna. Sharks that are inadvertently snagged by tuna lines are finned for sale in Asian nations, providing a lucrative source of additional income for these fishing crews.

A pound of dried shark fin can fetch up to $265 in some markets. A bowl of shark fin soup can cost as much as $100. The remainder of the shark carcass has little commercial value.

In June, Hawaii Governor Benjamin Cayento signed a bill aimed at limiting shark finning by prohibiting the landing in Hawaii of any shark fins without the entire shark carcass. The federal bill extends that protection to all U.S. states.

Australia also banned shark finning this year through a bill passed in October.