US Shark Fin Trade Ban

A grey reef shark locks eyes with the photographer. Cairns aquarium, Australia.

The sale and trade of shark fin is devastating shark populations globally driving overfishing and the reprehensible act of shark finning. We urge you to take the initiative and reintroduce this bill to help save sharks and protect USA fisheries and ecosystems. Shark Stewards is working to support ocean health and healthy US fisheries by supporting and actively lobbying to pass the Federal Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2021. 

The Shark Fin Problem

Shark finning is the unsustainable and inhumane practice of cutting off a shark’s fins, often while the shark is still alive, and discarding the body into the ocean. The fins are used in the luxury shark fin soup and other dishes. Once an expensive dish limited to the nobility, shark fin soup is now widely sold to millions of consumers. As economies grow in Asia, a dish once reserved for the elite is now available to the middle class, and is in huge demand among many Asian communities in China and around the world, including across the United States. Although shark finning is illegal in the USA, the sale and trade of fins is still allowed in most US states and shark fins are imported and re-exported thereby contributing to shark finning and other illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing of sharks. The trade in shark fin is increasing shark catch, placing more pressure on threatened species and is driving overfishing of many shark species.

History of Recent Legislation

In 2019 Representatives Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D. Northern Marianas) and Michael McCaul (R. Texas) sponsored HR 737, bipartisan bill known as The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019. This bill passed the House November 20, 2019 with overwhelming support.

This bill addresses the sale of shark fins and the inclusion of rays and skates in the Seafood Traceability Program. (The Seafood Traceability Program has data reporting and record keeping requirements at the time of entry for imported fish or fish products entered into U.S. commerce.)

The bill makes it illegal to possess, buy, or sell shark fins or any product containing shark fins, except for certain dogfish fins. A person may possess a shark fin that was lawfully taken consistent with a license or permit under certain circumstances.Penalties are imposed for violations under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The Department of Commerce must revise its regulations to include rays and skates as species that are subject to the Seafood Traceability Program. The companion Senate Bill S 877 (Cory Booker, D. NJ) passed through Senate committees in 2019 and placed on the 2/12/2019 placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar. The bill was included in the Federal end of year spending package to be forwarded to the President but was excluded by Senator Marco Rubio. 

Although sharks have existed for over 400 million years, in recent decades, many populations have faced steep declines due to rampant exploitation. Their slow reproductive rates make them extremely vulnerable to extinction. The disappearance of these apex predators causes dangerous imbalances in marine ecosystems worldwide. The decline in shark species will inevitably cascade through the food chain, leading to the loss of additional fish populations. As of 2021, 316 species, nearly 40 percent of sharks and related species (e.g., rays, skates and chimaera) are threatened with extinction. Unless the rising demand for fins is curbed, this percentage will only increase. Each year, fins from 73 million to over 100 million sharks enter the global market. Moreover, approximately 50 million sharks die annually as bycatch in unregulated and indiscriminate longline, gillnet, and trawl fisheries. Since humans began industrial fishing, 70 percent of all sharks and rays have disappeared form the oceans. Given the myriad and unsustainable threats that sharks face, we must take action to ensure these animals will remain an integral part of our oceans. Eliminating the shark fin trade removes one of the biggest impediments to the continued survival of endangered shark species like hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks.

Shark Finning
Typically, sharks are finned alive or landed on fishing vessels, where their fins are sliced off and thrown back into the sea, to suffocate, bleed to death, or be eaten by other animals. The commercial value of shark fins is orders of magnitude higher than the meat, and many sharks are unpalatable making the fins the target of the fishery.  By discarding the body and keeping the fins, fishermen kill far more sharks and making the hunting ruthlessly efficient. Once removed, the dried shark fin is easy to transport and difficult to identify the species or the fishery it came from. Increasingly, sharks are being targeted in US waters due to the profits brought by the shark fin market.

The US Trade
Although the amount of fins entering into the United States is difficult to estimate, the nation unquestionably plays a major role in the global shark fin trade. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that over 1,000 metric tons of shark fins were imported into the United States in 2007. For the same year, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported approximately 29 metric tons imported. The discrepancy between FAO and NOAA figures is due to a number of factors, including lack of oversight, differences in labeling rules, and the fact that the United States only requires shark fins to be labeled as such when the product is dried (wet or freshly cut shark fins, as well as fins on ice, are not necessarily counted). But even though NOAA’s low estimates do not capture the full scope of the problem, it is clear that a staggering number of fins are passing through our borders—and many of these come from countries that have no regulations whatsoever concerning the finning of sharks at sea.

Growing concerns for shark populations have led legislators in the United States to enact laws to restrict the practice of finning, as well as the possession of shark fins.
In 2000, Congress passed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, which made it unlawful to possess a shark fin in US waters without a corresponding carcass. Unfortunately, the ban did not require that carcasses be brought ashore with fins attached, relying instead on a fin-to-carcass ratio whereby the total weight of the fins must not exceed a certain percentage of the total weight of the carcasses. This allowed fisherman to flout the law by mixing and matching bodies and fins from various sharks, making enforcement very difficult, since it is nearly impossible for enforcement officials to determine what species fins are from once they are removed from the body. The consensus of scientists, conservationists, and enforcement officials is that the only way to effectively enforce a shark finning ban is to require that if sharks are fished, they must be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached. 

Recognizing this loophole, the federal government passed the Shark Conservation Act (SCA) in 2010. This law strengthens the nation’s shark finning ban by requiring fishermen in US waters to bring sharks ashore with fins naturally attached. While the SCA prohibits anyone under US jurisdiction from engaging in finning, consumers have largely turned to international markets for fin imports. Moreover, fins from sharks caught in US waters continue to be sold after they are detached on land, thereby fueling demand for the product. 

State Shark Fin Trade Bans
There is no current system to track a fin to a fishery or even to a shark caught in US waters. Therefore, the domestic fishery gives poachers and criminals an avenue to sell fins from endangered sharks or sharks imported or caught in illegal, unreported or unregulated fisheries.  Consequently, 14 US states and three territories (California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands) have enacted laws that prohibit shark fin trade outright, making it illegal to sell, trade, or possess shark fins within their borders.

The Solution
Despite these important federal and state laws, a comprehensive nationwide ban- without loopholes or exemptions for domestic fin export industry- is needed to ensure that the United States does not continue to serve as a driving force behind the slaughter of sharks around the world. This bill will help save sharks globally and domestically and will strengthen US fisheries.

Shark Steward’s mission is to restore ocean health by saving sharks from overfishing and the shark fin trade, and protecting critical marine habitat through the establishment of marine protected areas and shark sanctuaries. With your help, we can do it