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.
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