Florida has a few more days until increased shark fin penalties kick in, and Congress is considering a ban that would prohibit fin sales for the entire country. But a paper co-authored by two shark researchers argues that such a ban would be destructive to shark fisheries management tactics already in place.
The act of cutting off a shark’s fin and dumping its body into the water, eventually leading it to bleed to death or suffocate, has been illegal in the U.S. since 2000. Senate Bill 884 increases the fines for those who cut the fins off sharks while on the water, or return to shore with a shark’s fin separated from its body.
The bill, which goes into effect Oct. 1, created penalties ranging from first- to second-degree misdemeanors, up to $1,000 in fines or one year in jail, and possible fishing license suspensions, depending on how often the offender commits the crime.
Several practices have been put in place to properly manage the dozens of shark species swimming in Florida waters, such as which sharks can and cannot be caught and at what size, what type of gear is appropriate to use, and sharks allowed to be caught must be in their whole condition ashore.
While Mote Marine Laboratory’s Robert Hueter supported Florida’s new law imposing stricter fines for finning, he said Congress aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist in the U.S.
While writing letters to members of Congress earlier this year about the proposed ban, Hueter said he learned that he and another shark researcher, Simon Fraser University’s David Shiffman, shared similar views on the state of shark fisheries and what a fin ban could bring. So they decided to collaborate on a peer-reviewed paper to be published in Marine Policy’s November 2017 issue.
The paper, called “A United States shark fin ban would undermine sustainable shark fisheries,” says the ban on fin sales would have a negligible effect on worldwide fin trade. The fins are highly sought for shark fin soup in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, and is considered a luxury item.
“By focusing just on the fins and having this big nationwide ban, it’s going to make people feel like we’ve solved the problem,” Hueter told the Bradenton Herald Friday. “Nothing can be further from the truth.”
Hueter said the act of shark finning isn’t a big issue in the U.S. like it is in other countries, and the country’s exports only make up about 1 percent of the global trade. And as the worldwide fin market has gone down, the taste for shark meat has gone up.
Around the globe, sharks face daunting threats of overfishing, plastic pollution, loss of food sources and climate change, which can affect both their habitats and their life cycles, Hueter said.
‘Doing it right’
Instead of a fin ban, Hueter suggested proposing a type of certification that would help identify the countries that fish for sharks in a sustainable way and don’t practice finning, essentially rewarding the importers “who are doing it right.” Having fin processing facilities inside the U.S. instead of having them exported to be dried, then re-imported, is another proposition.
“The problem exists in other countries and the problem exists on the high seas,” Hueter said. “Those are the folks we need to penalize.”
Stepping out of the marketplace would do more harm than good, the paper argues, and stopping the legal catching of sharks in U.S. sustainable fisheries wouldn’t do anything to convince other nations to improve their methods.
“We’re not going to do it by essentially getting out of the business,” Hueter said. There would be “no more place at the table to discuss with them how to achieve sustainability.”
George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research in Gainesville, agrees.
There’s a difference between conservationists and preservationists: Conservationists, he said, are for the preponderance of species, but preservationists “have taken it one step farther” and don’t want to see any killed.
“Most scientists don’t fall into that (latter) category,” Burgess said.
He doesn’t agree with Congress’ push to extinguish the sale of shark fins, but he also didn’t support SB 884. He feels as though there has been a sufficient amount of regulation, and lessons learned, so sharks won’t die off.
“The intent of the Florida law and the proposed U.S. one was done with good heart by folks who want to make sure sharks recover and not get back to where they bottomed out,” Burgess said, adding that it could effectively shut down legal shark fishing.
“At some level, it’s an inalienable right to take on fishing as an occupation,” Burgess said. “The idea that we as a country should ban the selling of all fins is a misguided attempt at all conservation.”
‘Jaws’ took a bite
Shark populations took a huge hit in the later part of the 20th century, and movie director Stephen Spielberg was in part to blame.
When “Jaws” hit the silver screen, Burgess said there was a “collective testosterone rush, especially on the eastern seaboard” because people wanted pictures with the “mankiller.”
As swordfish populations dramatically dropped in the 1980s, commercial fisherman knew they could get sharks because they’d often reel them in as bycatch. In the ’90s, shark fin prices spiked, leading them to be overfished.
Focus would soon tune in on decimating shark numbers, leading to more research and implementation of better management. Burgess said shark populations as a whole are bouncing back, but the rate at which they’re growing depends on each species.
Alex Miller, a Sarasota lawmaker who recently resigned from her post in the Florida House, and state Rep. Joe Gruters, who represents parts of East Manatee, worked on Senate Bill 884 with input from SeaWorld and the Humane Society, the latter of which the pair had served on its board for several years.
The pushback they received on the bill that prohibited what Gruters called a “barbaric act” surprised him, but he felt the bill would “move the needle.”
“You would think that bill would be a slam dunk, easy thing,” he said. “But it goes to show you ... how hard it is to get a bill passed in the Legislature.”
He said the bill originally was supposed to apply to all anglers, but the final version omitted commercial fishermen from any punishment.
Gruters also said that for this legislative session, he plans on introducing a bill related to the shark-dragging incident exposed in July. The video showed a shark being dragged behind a speeding boat, while at least two local men looked on, laughing. More images surfaced, including a video of a shark being used as a beer bong, beer being poured into the gaping mouth of a Goliath grouper and a hammerhead shark being shot while dangling from a fishing wire.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law enforcement spokesman Rob Klepper said in an email to the Bradenton Herald Friday that the “investigation is ongoing and moving forward.”
Before she resigned from the Legislature, Miller indicated that she would introduce a bill that sought to clarify animal cruelty laws.
“We want to try to prevent situations like what we saw with the dragging from happening,” he said.