The official definition of shark finning is “removing the fins from a shark while still on the fishing vessel and dumping the rest of the shark overboard.” Not only is the practice of shark finning incredibly wasteful (less than 10% of the weight of a shark is used) but it is extremely cruel as they are still alive when thrown back into the ocean. Many species of sharks need to be constantly moving in order to breathe, scientifically referred to as “ram ventilation.” Without their fins, swimming is not possible. Instead, they meet their demise as they slowly sink down and either bleed to death, are eaten alive, and/or drown. Various films around the world have highlighted this horrific end many sharks meet, with late marine biologist Rob Stewart’s Sharkwater inspiring many to try and change this narrative.
However, many people believe that any shark that had its fins cut off is a victim of “shark finning.” Here are two examples of sharks in situations that do not fall under “shark finning”: 1) if a shark is brought to shore (on land) with the fins attached and then has the fins cut off or 2) if the shark is brought to shore (land) without fins attached.
A recent study showed that nearly all shark scientists and natural resource managers are opposed to the inhumane practice of finning. When the results of this study were published, many complained that these same people did not support previous “fin ban” legislation that was attempting to be implemented worldwide. This legislation made it illegal to buy, sell, or possess shark fins which sounds great if you quickly glance over the proposal and didn’t read the fine print. For those who did, they realized that all sharks find would be banned— even if they were caught based on science-based fishing quotas, there are no threatened species being caught, monitoring and reporting are enforced and accurate, there are bycatch mitigation strategies in place, etc. Those opposed to this “fin ban” instead proposed shark fishery management strategies that were comprehensive in that they addressed all issues and allowed for well-managed fisheries to buy and sell sustainable fins.
Yes, you can catch sharks sustainably! And this new policy shows just that, making it so that all sharks landed must be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached to their body. This move to completely ban the removal of shark fins at sea is the first of its kind, and the international fisheries management body hopes it will put an end legal loopholes that could lead to undetected finning. “We applaud Mediterranean fisheries managers for taking this important step toward preventing the wasteful and indefensible practice of shark finning,” said Ali Hood of the Shark Trust on their website. “We are particularly grateful to the EU for being a persistent champion of fins-attached requirements. This policy is essential not only for properly enforcing finning bans but also for gathering vital information on shark catch.”
While the GFCM banned finning in 2005, this did not forbid the at-sea removal of shark fins. The same remains true for many other regional fishery bodies, complicating finning ban enforcement when fins are allowed to be removed at sea and stored independently from the rest of the body. Continuing to permit this allows for “high-grade,” which is when you mix the bodies and the fins of different sharks.
Fin ID guides do exist. “Identifying Shark Fins: Implementing and Enforcing CITES” was created to help enforcement personnel identify the dried and wet fins of commercially traded CITES-listed shark species based on morphological characteristics in their commonly traded form (frozen and/or dried and unprocessed) at the first point of trade.
But while fin ID’s do exist in various languages, it can still be hard to distinguish fins- especially within the Carcharhinidae family where most in this group looking morphologically similar. These sharks include the spinner shark (Carcharhinus brevipinna), blacknose shark (Carcharhinus acronotus), blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus), grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus), and the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus). And while some fins are easier to identify (think of the broad, white-speckled fins of the oceanic whitetip shark), sharks are more easy to identify if their fins remain attached, which allows for more accurate shark-catch fishery data to be collected and monitored. “A preliminary visual identification will establish reasonable or probable cause in enforcement settings so that expert opinion can be sought or genetic testing can confirm field identification, aiding governments in successfully implementing and enforcing the CITES shark listings and promoting legal, sustainable trade,” states the Identifying Shark Fins website.
The EU and Albania are among the 17 co-sponsors of this new proposal to include this fins-attached landing requirement in the shark finning ban of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). ICCAT members will meet this month (November) in Croatia to debate this, with hopes that the countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt will come to an agreement.
Although films and celebrities coming out against shark finning (see Yao Ming) has made a dent in shark fins demand, they are still prized in some regions of the world for their supposed medicinal purposes and for those selling shark fin soup, a dish that is a status symbol for most Asian cultures. Some people believe that they will absorb the “powers” of these long-living creatures by eating their fins. Perusing health stores you may have seen shark cartilage pills, stocked on their shelves because there are people who believe that the shark fin has medicinal properties because it is made of cartilage; the myth that these animals cannot get cancer is one of the main reasons people think sharks are some health ‘silver bullet’ cure to all ailments. However, sharks do get cancer, cartilage cannot be absorbed by our bodies, and overall these pills have no nutritional value.
Approximately 100 million sharks are killed globally each year and this can lead to a ripple effect in their respective ecosystems. Due to their slow growth and low reproductive rates, some species of sharks are knocking on death’s final door; in fact, a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction according to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. It was also found that ray species, which also fall victim to illegal finning and other shady practices (i.e. the trades for their gill plates) are found to be at a higher risk than sharks. These findings are part of a global analysis of these species carried out by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG).
It can be difficult for some species to replenish their populations as quickly as we are diminishing them. “Enforceable finning bans are a cornerstone of responsible shark fisheries management, and Mediterranean countries have set an excellent example for other regions around the world to follow,” said Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates International on the Shark Trust press release. “We now turn our focus to the Atlantic, as tuna fishery managers consider adopting the best practice, fins-attached requirement for vast fisheries affecting millions of oceanic sharks.”
A small win for this species… but a win nonetheless.