by AJ Sablan
For decades now, shark conservation messaging has gone something like this:
Shark finning is a cruel act where a shark’s fins are cut off and its body dumped in the sea. Often times sharks are still alive when they are dumped overboard. They cannot swim without their fins, so they either drown or are eaten. Fishermen invented finning because shark fins are so valuable, whereas the rest of the shark is not. Finning saves space to fill a boat’s hold with as many high value fins as possible. This practice has to stop! If we ban finning, we will save sharks.Shark finning has been the focus of many shark conservation organizations and advocates, but the term is widely misused. Many people think that it is analogous to ‘whaling’ and that ‘shark finning’ means ‘shark fishing.’ It does not. Shark finning is where a shark’s fins are cut off and its body dumped in the sea.
The misuse of the phrase ‘shark finning’ has policy implications when advocates are working to pass laws more restrictive than finning bans, such as those that reduce fishing or restrict trade. Here are five facts about shark finning that advocates often get wrong:
1. Shark finning is already bannedThe global shark conservation movement should be proud on what it has accomplished in a relatively short period of time. Shark finning has been banned throughout most of the world, but these bans have proven to not be enough to restore threatened shark populations. The discussion on finning needs to move away from policy change and into implementation and enforcement. Meanwhile, more shark conservation advocates need to ask for policies that reduce fishing, curb trade, and decrease demand.
Nearly every country and international fisheries management organization around the world banned finning years ago. Instead of ‘ban shark finning,’ we should be calling on governments to ‘enforce finning bans.’ There are two recognized types of finning bans. The more restrictive is usually referred to as ‘fins naturally attached,’ and as the name implies, it requires that sharks be landed with their fins still naturally attached to their bodies. The United States, Australia, Chile, and the entire EU, have implemented fins naturally attached, which is now considered the international standard. The less restrictive policy allows for shark fins to be removed at sea as long as the corresponding bodies are brought to port and the fins make up a predetermined percentage of the total weight, 5% in most places. There are a number of loopholes that fishermen have used to exploit the 5% rule, thus the move towards fins naturally attached.
2. Banning Shark Finning does not make it illegal to fish for shark fins
The United States banned shark finning more than a decade ago, but continues to be one of the top shark fishing countries. Banning finning does not make shark fins illegal, it makes the dumping of shark bodies at sea illegal. This misunderstanding is widespread. Last week, January Jones wrote, “Banning shark finning but allowing shark fins just doesn't make sense.” The only thing that does not make sense is January’s misunderstanding of shark policy.
3. Banning shark finning alone will not save sharks
Shark finning bans are designed to stop the cruel killing of sharks, not the killing of sharks. They do not regulate the shark fin fishery; they regulate how the less valuable parts of a shark are disposed. They also help with species-level identification and data gathering. Two recent studies have called into question the effectiveness of finning bans to reduce mortality. Population Trends in Pacific Oceanic Sharks and the Utility of Regulations on Shark Finning by Dr. Shelley Clarke et al, was published in Conservation Biology last year. Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks by Dr. Boris Worm et al, was published in Marine Policy earlier this year.
4. Ending finning is only a first step
There are several policy options that are much more effective for protecting sharks than shark finning bans. The science is still coming in, but catch limits and prohibitions may be improving a few shark populations around the world. More recently, shark fin trade bans and shark sanctuaries have restricted the supply of shark fins to the market. These policies would likely not have been put in place had finning not been banned first. Once finning is banned, there is still much work to be done to ensure healthy shark populations.
5. Repeated calls to ‘End Shark Finning’ confuse efforts to reduce fishing, curb trade, and decrease demand
The only campaign to end finning taking place today is in New Zealand, which allows finning to take place because the shark fishery has catch limits and prohibitions on endangered species. Unless a shark conservation advocate is working in New Zealand or calling on governments to 'enforce finning bans,' they have no reason to use the word finning. Finning is already banned in most of the world. It is confusing to ask to ‘stop shark finning’ when the policy change being sought is a reduction in fishing, trade, or demand.
Alyssa Sablan is a shark advocate in Guam. Want to know more about shark finning? Read Alyssa's previous blogs here and here.