Federal Shark Fin Crackdown On Tap

Shark fins are worth big money in some regions. While it’s still legal to buy and sell shark fins in many states, new federal regulations are on the horizon.
shark fins captured by NOAA
These shark fins were captured in an unrelated bust by NOAA in the early 2000s. NOAA

By one estimate over 70 million sharks are taken annually, chiefly for their fins. Demand for shark fin soup, considered a delicacy by many, has driven the price of shark fins sky-high.

Shark fins are worth many times more than the rest of the shark. Just one pound of shark fins can be worth hundreds of dollars, making it one of the most expensive foods on the planet. The top of a shark’s tail fin can fetch more than $150 per pound. In Hong Kong, prices soar to nearly $300 per pound.

The high prices have driven many to play outside the law, and created a somewhat murky legal market.

The Complicated Issue of Shark Fins

The demand has created a toothy dilemma among shark anglers, commercial fishing operations, restaurants, conservationists, importers and exporters. Lawmakers are trying to sort it all out.

Finning, catching sharks and cutting off their valuable fins then discarding the rest of the fish, is still practiced in some regions of the world. But in the U.S. a federal law passed 22 years ago made the practice illegal.

The wanton waste of wild creatures such as this is despicable on many levels, especially to American fishermen and hunters.

However, some states do allow the lawful harvest of fins from dead sharks, as well the importation of shark fins from out of the country. This is the crux of a shark fin harvesting issue that has yet to be fully resolved. But it’s being looked at carefully by sweeping federal oversight.

Infractions Abound

Illegal Sharks in Texas
Crew members from Coast Guard Cutter Edgar Culbertson, a 154-foot Fast Response Cutter homeported in Galveston, Texas, assessed sharks caught by four Mexican fishermen engaged in illegal fishing off the southern Texas coast, Aug. 2, 2022. After intercepting the lancha, Coast Guard personnel seized the sharks, detained the fishermen and transferred the men to border enforcement agents for processing. Coast Guard

Illegal harvesting of sharks and unlawful sale of their fins is a fairly routine offense in the U.S. Recently the Coast Guard made a case against four Mexican fishermen illegally working Texas waters for sharks near Corpus Christi.

In another case, a pair of Texas wardens inspected a San Antonio seafood restaurant and discovered 381 whole shark fins, plus another nearly 30 pounds of frozen shark fins in a commercial freezer. All shark fins were seized as evidence and a case against the unnamed restaurant’s owners is pending.

In 2015 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning the shark fin trade in Texas. Despite this, Texas reportedly has become a major hub in the shark fin commercial trade. At the time Texas became the first Gulf Coast State and the 10th state having commercial trade bans on shark fins, joining California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington.

The Sunshine State is also home to a host of shark-fishing infractions. According to the AP, in July a Miami federal court accused a Florida exporter of falsely labeling over 5,500 pounds of China-bound shark fins as live Florida spiny lobsters. Another Florida company also is under criminal investigation for similar violations. The company is managed by a Chinese-American woman who in 2016 pleaded guilty to shipping more than a half-ton of live Florida lobsters to her native China without a license.

New Legislation Looms

Although shark finning is illegal in U.S. waters, fins still can be imported and exported in and out of most U.S. states. Some people believe it is wasteful not to consume fins from sharks that are lawfully caught, harvested and used as food by fishermen. If the great bulk of a shark is consumed for food, then not doing the same to shark fins is wrong, so the thinking goes.

But an increase in shark fishing scrutiny from law enforcement may be on the horizon. Congress is currently debating a federal law making it illegal to import or export even foreign-caught shark fins.

Demian Chapman is the head shark researcher at the Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota. He warns that the push to ban commercial fishing for sharks in the U.S. could be a serious mistake.

The A.P. reported that Chapman warns that a federal bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, appears to be driven by “shark fans,” those who want to see the fish species afforded the same very high level of protection given to marine mammals and sea turtles, not “shark fins.”

“If you subtract the U.S. from the fin trade entirely, it won’t do anything to directly affect international demand and it’s likely that other countries, with far less regulation of their fisheries, will fill the void,” said Chapman.

Chapman said few in the U.S. are involved in the cruel, wasteful practice of shark finning and that the U.S. role in transporting fins can be resolved without punishing American fishermen.

“There’s a disconnect between perceptions and reality,” Chapman is quoted by the A.P. “In the 25 years I’ve been studying sharks, they’ve gone from demon fish to a group of species that many people want to protect. This is great, but we have to support science-based management measures that address the real problems.”