Watered Down Shark Fin Law Will Increase Fines, but Allow Shark Fin Trade to Continue.

April 24, 2017

Florida legislators side skirted an important shark conservation measure by weakening a law that would have made the shark fin trade illegal in Florida. A similar measure in 2014 that would have made the trade of shark fin illegal passed through three Senate committees but was never heard on the floor. The new bill passed by the Senate and the House will reinforce penalties for fins harvested illegally, but will do nothing to reduce the shark fin trade for imported fins or shark fins sold from sharks landed fresh.  The original measure, SB 884 would have made it a first-degree misdemeanor in the state to trade or sell any shark fins and tails, as well as suspending or revoking permits of commercial and recreational fishers found in violation.

Shark finning- killing the shark just for the fins, or discarding the body and retaining only the fins for sale – is now illegal in all US Federal and state waters. Florida originally prohibited finning in 1992, with the federal law following in 2000, by requiring sharks be landed in whole condition. In 2010, the Shark Conservation Act strengthened the prohibition, making it unlawful to remove fins at sea, have possession of fins aboard a fishing vessel, or transfer fins from one vessel to another at sea.

The watered down version of SB 884 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, increases penalties and would make it a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida to trade or offer for sale shark fins or shark tails obtained illegally. Passed unanimously by the House today, the bill goes to the Governor for his signature.

Under the proposed law, commercial and recreational fishers found in violation would face a suspension or loss of their licenses or permits. Persons illegally in possession of shark fins face a second-degree misdemeanor carrying a fine up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. The bill would increase the fine to $4,500 and add a six-month suspension of a person’s saltwater license on a first offense. A second violation would increase the fine to $9,500 with a one-year license suspension. Licenses would be permanently revoked on a third offense.

Although shark finning is illegal in USA and under Florida law, the problem of finning exists in Florida. Just this month Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers boarded a shrimper 20 miles off Key West and discovered 30-40 pairs of fins.  The value of shark fins on the open market and the ease in trading processed fins is providing incentive to illegally harvest sharks for their fins, or to overharvest sharks for the high value of the fin.

The fins provide the principal ingredient in shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy that has grown in popularity, leading to population decline from shark finning and over harvesting sharks for their fins.  Shark finning is a global problem that can impact domestic shark populations.  Worldwide, shark finning has been blamed for killing up to 73 million sharks per year.  In a separate study by the same researcher Dr. Shelly Clarke, suggests that the number of sharks landed internationally each year is underestimated.

The National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration reports 27,000 tons of fins were traded globally in 2013. However, this value may be underreported. In 2011 the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reported 295 metric tons were imported into the USA from other countries. With over 40 species of sharks, Florida waters host a high diversity of sharks, including several endangered species such as scalloped hammerhead and basking sharks. 

A report released by the non-profit Oceana determined that sharks are worth far more alive to Florida than dead. The 2017 report states that shark-related dives in Florida generated more than $221 million in revenue and fueled over 3,700 jobs in 2016. The independent report, shows a stark contrast between the value of sharks to Florida’s dive industry against the total U.S. shark fin export market of $1.03 million in 2015. 

If passed as originally written, the Florida law would have mirrored 12 other US states with shark fin trade bans.  A federal bill called the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (H.R. 1456) currently introduced into Congress would make the sale and trade of shark fin illegal throughout the US and  overseas territories.