Donate Take Action

Join us

Oceana Magazine Winter 2013: Fins Are Finished

Fins Are Finished

State shark fin bans are under threat—from NOAA

By Justine E. Hausheer

Primordially graceful, sharks have roamed our oceans for 400 million years. They ruled the seas before the first vertebrates crawled onto land, swam alongside dinosaurs, and survived mass extinctions that exterminated 90 percent of all life on earth. But they might not survive us.

At a time when shark populations are crashing from overfishing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is considering steps to undermine state laws that protect sharks. Shark finners are the major cause for the slaughter of as many as 73 million sharks every year to supply restaurants with shark fin soup, according to a 2006 study in Ecology Letters.

 Finners typically hack off every one of a shark’s fins before hurling it back overboard, dead or dying. Largely thanks to finning, shark populations have declined by much as 90 percent for many species, according to a 2012 study in Conservation Biology.

Although shark finning is no longer allowed in U.S. waters, the international trade in shark fins is still legal. “There is still a disturbing amount of shark finning going on internationally,” says Jackie Savitz, Oceana vice president for U.S. oceans. “By having a market in the U.S. where fins can be brought into our country, we enable and promote this destructive practice.”

Eight U.S. states and two territories decided to address this issue by passing bans outlawing the possession, sale and trade of shark fins. Hawaii passed the first ban in 2010, and within three years California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and Illinois passed similar legislation, eliminating a large percentage of the U.S. market for shark fins. Previously, an average 68 percent of the fins imported into the U.S. went to the eight states that enacted these bans, according to data gathered by Oceana.

But after the bans went into effect, NOAA took two steps that could destabilize both the bans and their conservation benefits. In May, NOAA proposed a new rule claiming that federal law preempts, or overrules, state shark fin bans. They also filed documents in a lawsuit challenging the California state ban, supporting the plaintiff’s claims that the ban is inappropriate.

In the federal rule, NOAA argued that the state bans “have the potential to undermine significantly conservation and management of federal shark fisheries.” In their submission in the California case, they claim that a state ban “may effectively shut down shark fishing because it prevents fishers from obtaining a significant part of the economic value of the shark.” NOAA then explains that possession bans are problematic, because fishermen need to remove fins from the shark carcass in order to prepare, store, or sell the meat.

Supporters of the bans disagree with NOAA’s claims that the bans interfere with fisheries management. In a letter to NOAA administrators, Representative Jared Huffman and 61 other members of Congress wrote: “These statutes address the market for sale of products made from shark fins, and do not attempt to regulate fishing practices or fisheries management.”

Housed within the Department of Commerce, NOAA’s mission is “to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.” “Those responsibilities create an internal tugof- war between commerce and conservation,” says Oceana campaign director Dominique Cano-Stocco. In this instance, she says, NOAA is deliberately prioritizing commerce over conservation, protecting a handful of shark fishermen at the expense of shark conservation.

Others argue that the state bans are not in conflict with federal law at all. In a letter to NOAA administrators, West Virginia Senator John D. Rockefeller IV wrote that state bans actually support fisheries management “because they promote the return of sharks as a keystone species in ocean ecosystems, which is beneficial to numerous other fish species with commercial and recreational value in those ecosystems.”

Regarding differences between federal and state laws, Oceana’s Savitz says that challenging state bans is the wrong solution.  “We have asked NOAA to back off, and to let the states’ action to protect sharks do the job it was intended to do,” she says. “NOAA should help restore fish stocks and help sharks recover, rather than standing in the way of progress on conservation.”

State shark fin bans do more than just outlaw trade in product—they help protect sharks across the world from finning by taking shark fin soup off the menu. By trying to protect shark fishermen, says Savitz, NOAA is aiding shark finners globally. She adds that NOAA is also overriding the will of state representatives who put these laws in place with bipartisan support.

As of early December, NOAA has not yet addressed the widespread concern from conservationists, citizens and their representatives in Congress. “Oceana will continue to raise public awareness and talk with NOAA,” says Cano-Stocco. “We need to defend our state bans and make sure that we don’t lose the immense conservation benefits they provide to sharks outside U.S. waters.”