The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, which bans shark fin importation and exportation in the United States among other provisions to conserve oceans. Additionally, the bill gives the U.S. government more tools to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. It will now go to the Senate for a final vote before being sent to President Biden for signature.
“Today, the House took an important step in passing the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes critical advancements in ocean conservation. This bill will finally remove the U.S. from the devastating shark fin trade once and for all. The demand for shark fins is driving many shark populations toward extinction, with 73 million sharks killed for their fins every year,” said Oceana’s vice president for the United States, Beth Lowell, in a press release. “This bill will also help to fight illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by giving the U.S. more tools to take action against countries that fail to address these devastating and destructive practices in their fleets. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to pass this landmark, bipartisan package.”
The bill couldn’t have come at a better time; one study found that more than one-third of all sharks, rays, and chimaeras are at risk of extinction because of overfishing, and a another study found that global oceanic shark and ray populations have declined by more than 70% over the last 50 years. Sharks and rays reproduce more slowly than others, making them more vulnerable to fishing pressure than other fish. Their fins are highly sought after, which incentivizes overfishing and shark finning (removing the fins from a captured shark and discarding it at sea). Millions of shark fins are sold on the global market every year, endangering shark populations. Although shark finning is illegal in the USA, their fins can still be bought and sold throughout much of the United States. Often imported from countries that have inadequate protections in place for sharks, many conservationists and scientists argued that allowing the fins in was a sort of economic incentive for other countries to fish for sharks in methods that are against the law in USA waters.
It’s these illegal fishing activities (collectively known as ‘illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or IUU fishing) that undermine legal shark fishing, which supported global economies and provides food on the table for many communities. While sharks are harvested primarily for their meat and fins, they have also been targeted for their skin, cartilage and liver; the value of the world trade in shark commodities is said to approach nearly USD$1 billion per year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Some scientists argue that there is a legal trade option for shark fins, pointing out that for those that have been harvested and landed in accordance with the regulations, fins removed from these sharks can be sold legally. “The presence of fins in a commercial fishery however does not automatically mean finning is taking place, as there is also a legal trade in fins. When a shark is brought to shore and has its fins removed later, this is not categorised as shark finning,” notes the Marine Stewardship Council on their website. “Shark fins can be provided to the marketplace without finning having taken place. For example some shark fisheries may process sharks aboard for efficiency if they need to land fins and meat in separate ports. This means the sharks cannot be landed with their fins still attached. Spain was the leading supplier of regulated shark fins to Hong Kong in 2008.”
According to a poll released by Oceana in 2020, nearly 9 in 10 registered American voters oppose the practice of shark finning, and almost 80% support legislation to ban the sale and trade of shark fins throughout the United States. As of today, 13 states, more than 45 airlines, 15 major corporations (including Amazon, Hilton, and Disney), and 22 shipping companies have refused to transport or trade shark fins. Nearly 700 businesses — including more than 100 dive shops and scuba businesses, several aquariums, and SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment — support a national fin ban. Other support includes more than 150 scientists, 150 chefs, 140 fishermen, and 85 surfers, and surf businesses. But not everyone is on board, with some advocating for sustainable shark fisheries, which have been recognised by both consumer and industry-facing literature, over an all-out fin ban.
How this new ban will ifluence IUU fishing is yet to be seen.