Shark Finning and Shark Fishing: What’s the Difference?

By February 6, 2013 February 8th, 2013 Ocean News


All around the world sharks are fished in commercial and recreational fisheries. Sharks and shark products are sold in domestic and foreign markets as food, for use in medicinal products, and as an ingredient in pet food.  Many countries have banned shark finning but still allow shark fishing to occur within their territorial waters. What is the difference between shark finning and shark fishing?

Shark finning is the removal and sale of shark fins, while the rest of the shark body is dumped at sea (the sharks are often still alive!). Shark fishing typically refers to the catch and harvest of the entire shark (or most of it), or the practice of catch and release in a recreational fishery.

Shark finning is a wasteful and cruel practice. It is wasteful because the entire body of the shark, which could provide a valuable source of protein as well as income, is dumped overboard at sea because the body would otherwise take up cargo space on the ship. In today’s markets, the fin alone is worth more than the rest of the shark. Shark finning is cruel because the fins are typically removed from live sharks, which are then thrown back into the ocean and left to drown. The impact of shark finning on the global shark population is dramatic and it has been cited as a major conservation concern. Globally, scientists and conservationists have reported a drastic decline in the abundance of assessed shark and ray species, with up to 30% of all species now classified as threatened or endangered. Limited data to assess how many and what type of sharks are being harvested results in a high level of uncertainty about the population status of many shark species. Shark finning contributes to this uncertainty because it is almost impossible to identify what species of shark has been caught based only on its fins.

The practice of shark finning has been a hot topic in the media, in Hollywood, and has been the focus of many organizations like Shark Savers and Shark Angels. But does that mean all shark fishing is bad? If shark populations can be managed to support sustainable shark fisheries, then there is a potential for economic and sustenance benefits, as well as achieving the goal of conserving sharks all over the world. Let’s take a look at some of the ways we can manage for healthy shark fisheries.

shark catch distribution

Canada and the Shark Fishing Industry

Canada banned the practice of shark finning in 1994, but sharks can still be fished for and harvested. The fishing regulations state that “When landed, the fins must not weigh more than 5% of the dressed weight of the shark.”  This means that while shark fishing is legal, shark finning is not. In Canada, it is legal to sell and purchase shark products, including shark fins. In fact, one of the first “certified sustainable” shark fisheries can be found on the coast of British Columbia (read about it here!).

The spiny dogfish shark is a coastal species captured on hook-and-line and are often captured as by-catch in ocean trawls. In B.C., the fishermen abide by conservatively small annual harvest quotas. They claim the number they remove each year is sustainable and not harming (over-exploiting) the population. The spiny dogfish is often used in fish and chips, sold as “rock salmon” in England, and their fins are also sold for use in shark fin soup. But, how sustainable is the fishery?  Scientists, the fisherman, and resource managers are monitoring the fishery carefully to find out. Spiny dogfish do not fully mature until they are 35 years old and females have a gestation (pregnancy) period of 2 years!  Spiny dogfish are long-lived and late maturing; these life history characteristics are typical of species that often become vulnerable to over-fishing.

Ok, so Canada seems to be managing its shark fishing industry (see the Federal governments Shark Management Plans – here!) but what about the rest of the world?  (I’m sure some of you might think differently; if so voice your opinions in the comments below!). Why are we always hearing about shark finning in the news? *** UPDATE – see Shannon Arnold’s comment below. Canada is not doing that well after all ****

International Shark Fishing Legislation

The European Union has legislation that requires fin weight to be less than 5% of the total weight of sharks landed. However, there is a loop-hole; the shark body is not required to be brought back to the harbour with the fins. Therefore, the fin to total body weight ratio is estimated at sea and may not  always be accurately recorded or monitored. Without the body of the shark – it is very difficult for enforcement officials at ship ports and harbours to estimate how much the fin weight actually relates to the unknown body weight! Scientists have denounced this regulation showing that it leads to gross species mis-identification as well as an underestimate of the number of sharks finned (Santana-Garcon et al. 2012*). Shark conservation organizations are working hard to close this loop-hole in the E.U. legislation.

You might now be asking – How do we conserve shark populations through sustainable fishing and yet stop the wasteful practice of shark finning?

Fins Naturally Attached


A policy initiative called “Fins Naturally Attached” is showing a lot of promise. Under this policy, shark fishermen would be required to leave the fin naturally attached to the body of the shark (or partially cut but still attached) after it is caught. This policy will drastically limit the number of sharks brought back to land for sale because the shark body will occupy space on the fishing vessel.  The policy will also allow resource managers to properly identify the shark species caught. Together, this means resource managers and scientists will have better data to set sustainable fishing quotas for many species of shark. Costa Rica was one of the first countries to adopt the fins naturally attached policy. Shark conservation organizations all over the world are pushing for fins naturally attached policies, including in the E.U. and New Zealand.

Here is what the Shark Trust has to say about the Fins Naturally Attached policy.

One of the biggest issues facing shark conservationists, scientists, and resource managers today is how to enforce new stricter shark fishing legislation on a global scale. Enforcement is a major issue and it raises two questions. First, how do we make sure all harvested sharks are reported, including those captured in one ocean and then sold on the other side of the world? Second, how can we be sure shark products exported to, and imported from, other countries were sustainably harvested? Costa Rica continues to battle such questions as it tries to conserve the shark species in its waters and enforce the fins naturally attached policy (see the article here!).

So what can we do to help conserve sharks? We can buy local, certified sustainable shark products (or don’t by them at all!). We can lobby with local conservation organizations to push our governments for stronger shark fishing legislations.  We can support organizations that provide education on the impact of shark finning. Education is our greatest tool; we can change the perception of sharks and promote sustainable shark fishing. A noticeable positive change in the public perception of sharks in recent years is a fantastic success and provides hope for future shark conservation goals (see our latest blog on the perception of sharks here!)

Do you think people should be fishing for sharks? Let us know in the comments below

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Rebecca Dolson says:

    And here is a great example of how successful education and awareness can be! Well done WWF Hong Kong!!

  • […] “All around the world sharks are fished in commercial and recreational fisheries. Sharks and shark products are sold in domestic and foreign markets as food, for use in medicinal products, and as an ingredient in pet food. Many countries have banned shark finning but still allow shark fishing to occur within their territorial waters. What is the difference between shark finning and shark fishing?” […]

  • Hector R. Leta says:

    ICCAT (International Commision Conservation Atlantic Tuna) has done a lot to protect and to manage Atlantic Tuna Resources and Swordfish. Why not to create the ICCWS (International Commision Conservation World Shark). Local and isolated efforts of countries are O.K. however if those isolated efforts get together under an International Organization will mean a lot for the conservation of these resources. Guidelines of such Organization should be obeyed by each of its members and that means COMMITMENT. I was Chief of Department of Pelagic Resources at the Instituto Nacional de Pesca (National Fisheries Institute) between 1986 and 1998 of Uruguay, South America and I know very well what shark finning consist of.
    I feel very sorry and it is ashamefull for what many tuna fish companies did on sharks during those years. In spite of this it is not late for a change yet.

  • Harley Benedict says:

    absolutely not!

  • Interesting article and the topic is certainly worthy of debate. As one of the marine coordinators at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, Canada I want to give a bit more context to your comments on Canadian shark management. Canada, in fact, has almost no meaningful management of our shark species, the most commercial of which are all classified as threatened or endangered now.

    We have been working on this issue for years – sit on the shark and other pelagics advisory committee on the East Coast, which is where most of the shark catch is landed, and have been the only Canadian NGO to be official observers at ICCAT for the last three years. More info on our work here:
    Soon we will be posting a more in depth position statement of finning, fins bans, and fishing.

    While we support sustainable fishing, including shark fishing, currently there are very few shark fisheries in the world that can be considered sustainable. Sharks are extremely vulnerable to overfishing due to their life history characteristics. Any fishing needs strict regulations and strong monitoring. The Pacific dogfish fishery may be sustainable, but the jury is still out.

    Unfortunately, for our other sharks in Canada, there is very little protection. The main threat to our sharks is from bycatch – the most caught species being blue, short fin mako, and porbeagle as well as greenland shark in our Arctic fisheries. In one fishery alone – the swordfish and tuna fleet in the Atlantic – 100 000 sharks are caught as bycatch every year (some thrown back injured or dead, some kept) with no penalties. There are no biologically based catch limits for blues and makos – these both have declining populations. There are no estimates of mortality that are taken into account for management and very little monitoring.

    Canada is also the only country in the Atlantic to continue to allow a directed fishery for the endangered porbeagle shark. This is one of the most endangered sharks in the Atlantic – its population has declined by 88% since 1960s and has just started to show signs of stabilizing – by allowing fishing to continue Canada is pushing the recovery time for this species from a 20 or 30 years to possibly over 100 years. The EU banned fishing in 2010.
    Canada has been the only country at ICCAT to block a measure to end fishing on the porbeagle shark agreed to by 49 other countries. They have blocked this for the last three years and have done major damage to Canada’s international reputation in conservation.
    We still have not fulfilled our international obligation to ban fishing for white sharks, we have no regulations in place for greenland sharks, which are now being caught by the hundreds in the new arctic turbot fishery. We are just figuring out that pregnant spiny dogfish females are being discarded by the hundreds in the bay of fundy.

    Canada also refuses to implement a fins naturally attached policy to help close international loopholes that exist with the ‘5% rule’. Now that the 27 member countries of the EU finally passed a fins attached law, Canada is now one of the last Western countries holding out on this.

    The list goes on. Unfortunately, at the international level Canada is considered a laggard in terms of shark conservation by the US, the EU, Brazil, and many other countries who have made tough decisions to balance fishing and conservation.

    The link you give is to the NPOA not to any actual shark management plans. The NPOA is sorely inadequate with no regulatory, or data collection requirements, no timelines. See recently published analysis of it here:

    Whew! Sorry for the long comment! I would be happy to talk more about any of the details. Thanks for your work!

  • Rebecca Dolson says:

    Thank you for your insightful comment Shannon. I am sorry to hear the state of our Canadian shark legislation is, by all measures, outdated.

    My research on the Canadian legislation for this article was topical and I thank you very much for pointing out where Canada falls short.

    Having been involved in the management plans for other (freshwater) species, I know how hard it can be to gain support and approval for tough or different legislation. Without organizations like yours to push for stronger management and legislation the plans would be even leaner.

  • Julie Suen says:

    I learnt from the book, The End of the Line (authored by Charles Clover) that ICCAT has been strongly criticised since 2008 for setting policies which allow quotas to exceed the maximum sustainable yield (for tuna) as advised by its scientists.

  • Thanks, Rebecca.
    Love the newsletter and the wide array of ocean issues you touch on. Keep up the good work 🙂 You can add us to the conservation and advocacy orgs that people can volunteer with. We are based in Halifax for folk who want to join actions in person, but also we have opportunities to get involved virtually for anyone out there online. Cheers 🙂

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