The United States Congress is considering legislation to impose a national ban on the shark fin trade in a rare bipartisan move to stop the slaughter of a top ocean predator whose body parts are used to make soup.
Conservationists are cheering, right?
Some scientists argue such a law is a misguided effort that could set shark conservation back decades. Banning all trade in shark fins would damage sustainable shark fisheries in the U.S., create unnecessary waste and have little impact on the global market for shark fins, say marine biologists David Shiffman of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and Robert Hueter, a senior scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. The two shark specialists outlined their views in a paper published recently in the journal Marine Policy.
“Many environmental activists want a solution that can fit on a bumper sticker, when really it’s a complicated, worldwide trade involving many different types of species in over 100 countries, and the solution is going to be complicated,” said Shiffman.
Shark finning – the practice of removing the fins of a living shark and discarding the body at sea – is already banned in the U.S. But fishers can still legally catch a certain quota of sharks and sell both the meat and the fins.
A 2013 study estimated that humans kill as many as 100 million sharks each year.
The bill pending in the Senate, called the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2017, would prohibit the sale of shark fins across the U.S., with violators facing a fine of up to $100,000. A companion bill is also progressing through the House of Representatives.
A similar bill died in Congress last year. But this time, its supporters are optimistic. They have two years to pass the legislation and have gained the support of Democrats and Republicans, including Arizona Republican John McCain.
Supporters say that a ban would hurt the global market for shark fins and contribute to the decline in the industry worldwide.
But the number of fins that the U.S. imports each year is tiny, according to Shiffman and Hueter.
At just 0.2 percent of the global trade, a ban would barely make a dent in the global market. Some of these imports come from sustainable fisheries abroad, they say, while others are imports of sustainably caught U.S. fins that have been exported for processing.
“The U.S. is a relatively small contributor to the global shark fin trade,” says Shiffman. “Removing our fins from the market is not going to have an impact on the global market directly, in terms of the numbers of sharks killed.”
In fact, a ban could have the opposite effect, Shiffman and Hueter write in their paper, by causing a rise in shark mortality. Shark meat sales bring in around $3.3 million each year in the U.S., while shark fins are valued at around $1 million.
Supporters of the ban have suggested that the legislation could indirectly target the global trade, causing the price of shark meat to fall by removing the most valuable part. That could prompt fishers to switch to other species.
But Shiffman and Hueter write that a ban could easily have the opposite effect: forcing fishers to catch more sharks to make up the financial shortfall from the loss of fin sales.
They also say the legislation could also hamper efforts to create sustainable fisheries around the world by eliminating a model of successful management and compromising U.S. efforts to persuade other countries to follow its lead.
The space left by the U.S. could end up being filled by countries that practice inhumane and unsustainable shark fishing practices, according to Shiffman and Hueter.
Ultimately, they note, a shark fin ban fails to tackle the main threat facing sharks: overfishing. While the global trade in shark fins is declining, the trade in shark meat is rising. According to the most recent reliable figures from the United Nations, the trade in shark fins declined by around 18 percent between 2003 and 2011, while the trade in shark meat increased by 42 percent during that time.
“Shark fin soup is not the enemy,” Hueter said. “The enemy is overfishing and killing too many sharks, and this ban will not in itself directly reduce the numbers of sharks that are killed every year by fishermen.”
He and Shiffman say they would support some form of amended legislation, such as a sustainability certification program for shark fin imports.
But other scientists believe the only option for shark conservation is an outright ban on the shark fin trade.
Steve Palumbi, professor of biology at Stanford University, says one problem is that a legal market for fins could allow smuggled imports from unregulated fisheries. “This danger to sharks everywhere would be so that a few U.S. fishermen would reap the benefit of taking large fins from sharks killed on swordfish lines.”
Neil Hammerschlag, a research assistant professor and shark expert at the University of Miami, emphasized that given the conservation challenges facing sharks, doing something was still better than doing nothing.
“It might have a cascading effect to other nations that want to do the same thing,” he said. “You have to be the first person in the pond to drop a pebble if you want to see a ripple effect. This could be a Band-Aid solution until shark populations are recovered.”