Every year, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week concludes its program with a familiar saying: “Sharks have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them.” This comforting thought—more people are killed each year by falling coconuts than by sharks—has never been so true. Sharks are being brutally slaughtered for their fins by the millions, and at this rate sharks soon will be functionally extinct.
The butchery takes place at sea where fishermen haul sharks aboard to saw off their fins and then dump the still-living creatures back into the ocean. The finless sharks writhe to the ocean floor, where they die of suffocation or are eaten by other predators. This hack-and-run strategy known as “finning” allows fisherman to ditch relatively unprofitable meat and sail to port with their cargos filled only with shark’s fins, which can sell for up to $400 a pound as the key ingredient in shark fin soup. More than 80 countries participate in the global market for shark fins, but few outlaw finning; and most of the slaughter occurs in international waters, where the industry is entirely unregulated.
More than 100 million sharks are killed each year, depleting shark populations in some regions by 90 percent. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 30 percent of shark species are threatened with extinction. Sharks are particularly vulnerable because they reach sexual maturity late in life and produce few offspring. If current fishing practices aren’t curtailed, many species of shark – which have thrived as top predators for 450 million years – could vanish in decades.
Their disappearance would produce cascading effects throughout marine ecosystems. Scientists have evidence that coral reefs devoid of sharks are less resilient, more algae-covered and less biodiverse than reefs where sharks still cruise in large numbers.
This crisis demands swift and comprehensive federal action to protect sharks. The Shark Conservation Act answered this call in 2010 when it banned the practice of finning in federal waters and required that all sharks be landed with their fins attached.
And yet, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently proposed a rule to implement the law, it suggested that the Shark Conservation Act would preempt stricter state and territorial statutes that currently ban the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins altogether.
Because it is impossible to determine whether a shark fin was harvested through finning—and because most shark fins bought in the United States are imported from countries where the industry is unregulated—prohibiting finning in federal waters does not ensure that “finned” shark fins will be kept out of the market. States and territories that are determined to protect sharks and reduce consumer demand for their fins have passed legislation that eliminates in-state markets for shark fins.
If NMFS succeeds in thwarting the much-needed additional protections that nearly a dozen U.S. states and territories have decided to provide to sharks, the result will be bad for sharks and ocean communities alike. In order to alleviate the impending threat to shark populations, stringent state and territorial restrictions should be combined with, not replaced by, complementary federal protections. After all, we need sharks along for the long haul—and certainly not for just a week on TV.