Saving Sharks From Finning
A serious effort to save some of the earth's oldest, largest, and most successful predators is finally under way. But it needs to move faster.
According to the best data, fins from 26 million to 73 million sharks are annually traded on the global market. With true sharks harder to come by, rays (which can be thought of as sharks whose pectoral fins have transformed to "wings") and sawfishes are also being depleted for shark-fin soup. Extinction caused by human exploitation has yet to be documented in marine fishes. But without drastic national and international reform, it now appears possible for dozens of shark and batoid species.
Even in the early 1980s scientists were seeing major shark declines along our Atlantic Coast. The reason: dead-on-the dock fishing tournaments, a U.S. tradition inspired by Jaws. The only parts of these sharks not routinely wasted were fins.
Only Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have designed and enforce comprehensive shark management plans. But managing sharks is not the same as using them wisely or ethically. "The U.S. had been a leader for years," says famed shark researcher Sam "Doc" Gruber, who owns and runs the Bimini Biological Field Station. "But we've fallen behind many other nations. There's no real reason to catch these fish. Their value is high because of the fins, but to me that's so inappropriate. We might as well be cutting out flamingo tongues like the Romans."
On December 1, 2011, the Association for Professional Observers (a group that supports fisheries observers hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service to do onboard monitoring of fishing practices) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a formal complaint with the NMFS, charging that observers who report such violations as finning are fired or assigned "punishment trips." According to the complaint, observers have been informed that finning violations "were not of interest" to the agency. One observer claimed to have been told by an agency official: "If you have a problem with [these and other] violations, you better get out of the program now." The NMFS declined to give me a response other than to say: "If we find merit to the allegations, we will address these issues."
Still, any deficiency in U.S. shark management and enforcement is rendered trivial by the free-for-all happening on the high seas, where sharking is supposedly regulated by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), among other bodies. At ICCAT annual meetings, representatives of the 48 member nations almost never vote. If a nation doesn't like a proposed rule, it can nix it simply by objecting. For example, at ICCAT's 2010 and 2011 meetings, the European Union proposed that porbeagles, IUCN-listed as endangered in the northwest Atlantic, be protected. But both times Canada, the only country with a targeted porbeagle fishery, shot down protection. In 2011, for the third year in a row, the United States, Brazil, and Belize tried and failed to get ICCAT to replace its current fin-to-carcass weight ratio requirement with a ban on removing fins at sea. But China, Japan, and South Africa shot down the proposal with the absurd argument that it required too much effort on the part of fishermen.
In 1996, with the fin trade soaring and sharks plummeting, Audubon sent me to Philadelphia to attend the shark meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council. Jack Musick, then of the vertebrate ecology and systematics programs at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, scolded the NMFS for its shark plan--a generic document for multiple species and built around a recovery rate three times higher than biologically possible. Musick testified that it was "very frustrating for those of us in the scientific community who work with these animals to keep coming to these meetings, keep presenting the data, and have the NMFS blow us off."
Musick has since left the institute but serves on the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the NMFS stock-assessment team. "How is the U.S. doing on sharks today compared with when I saw you last?" I asked him last November.
"Night and day," he replied, offering the strict management perspective as opposed to Gruber's thoughts on ethics. "NMFS has established a population-dynamics group of Ph.D.-level shark people. What we have now are species-specific assessments. Sandbars [save for a small scientific take to keep tabs on the population], duskies, and sand tigers are now protected; they have to be released alive. Some species, like blacktips, have recovered. Others have stopped declining. Now there are quotas for large and small coastal sharks. In terms of management along the East Coast, I think things are well in hand. Now we have to wait for the populations to come back, and some are doing that. I would say now the Atlantic Coast shark fisheries are among the best managed in the world." On our Pacific Coast, where cold water limits shark fauna anyway, Washington, Oregon, and California banned possession and sale of shark fins in 2011.
Furthermore, the amended 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act is spurring the NMFS to do its job; it makes the agency's previously routine approvals of overfishing illegal.
But any progress in building shark populations in U.S. waters is more than negated by the global slaughter--usually for fins. Despite enlightened management of sharks in its own waters, the United States ranks eighth among the world's top shark- and batoid-killing nations (ahead of even China and Japan). And the demand for shark-fin soup among Asian-Americans makes the United States a major importer of processed fins.