Finning is the most common practice to collect fins, in which fishermen remove the fins of live sharks and throw back the rest of the body back into the ocean. These sharks often die of suffocation or risk being eaten by predators once back in the water. With the rest of the shark’s body parts holding little market value, this is a tactic for fishermen to obtain only the profitable parts of the animal. In the past decade, studies have shown that the shark population is in decline, partly due to this expansive trade. Many endangered sharks are finned at an early age, before sexual maturity, obstructing any chance of reproduction. The most commonly fished species is the blue shark, as it swims along both the west and east American coasts.¹ In addition, it inhabits the same areas of the Pacific as swordfish and tuna, often getting caught in the same fishing nets.
Sharks are essential players in the ocean food chain as apex predators, meaning they keep sea ecology in check. Overfishing only aggravates the impending issue of species extinction and the unstable and large populations of other groups of sea creatures/prey. In fact, the fin comprises only 5% of the shark’s anatomy, rendering this practice wasteful as 95% of the body goes unused.² Thus, the unsustainable practice of finning brought attention to the lack of governance and oversight from transnational organizations and institutions. With Hong Kong and China acting as the world’s top shark fin importers, and fishing occurring in Indonesia, India, Spain, Argentina, and Taiwan (amongst others), it was not until recent years that nations established hard bans. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) acts as a somewhat international agreement on which species are protected or allowed for trade. Though, only the endangered whale shark, great white shark, and basking shark are protected under Appendix II of CITES.
In 1976, the U.S. issued the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act – the first government decree to monitor ocean waters – in order to regulate fisheries and their outputs.³ Since 2010, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, California, and Illinois all have bans on shark fin sales and possession. Internationally, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Palau, Maldives, and Honduras set up regulations on finning. In the European Union, the fins must be attached upon arrival on shore in order for fishermen to sell the item, a new rule, enacted in November 2012, that closes a previous loophole in the law. However, there remains a discrepancy between the management programs of these nation-states and those that do not adopt protective measures. The issue here is that sharks swim. They swim in, around, and out of regulatory boundaries set by governments and the various enacted bans.
*Timeline information, if not cited, taken from: Lack, Mary and Glenn Sant. The Future of Sharks: A Review of Action and Inaction. Cambridge: TRAFFIC International and the Pew Environment Group, 2011.
¹Spiegel, Jessica, “Even Jaws Deserves to Keep His Fins: Outlawing Shark Finning Throughout Global Waters, ” Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 24 (2000-2001), 413.