Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act

House Passes Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act
By Jesse Allen
from The Fishing Wire

Fishing—in particular flyfishing—has inspired me to travel the world, ostensibly to pursue species commonly targeted with fly and light tackle such as bonefish, tarpon and permit. Like most anglers, it’s the encounters with exotic ecosystems and the wildlife they produce that inspires me to explore, rod in hand.

The most unforgettable encounter of my fishing career took place not far from home, in the blue wilderness called the Gulf of Mexico off southeast Texas. It’s an area I fish regularly for a variety of species. On that trip, I targeted sharks. That trip inspired an appreciation for apex predators and the reasons to protect them.

In 2005 Capt. Brandon Shuler guided me to a seamount that rises from about 300 feet to 80 feet of water southeast of Port Mansfield. Massive schools of forage fish, menhaden and pilchards, dappled the calm, green water as they circled the structure, attracting myriad predators to the surface. False albacore and blackfin tunas blitzed through the bait. Amberjacks ambushed from the cover of the reef below. But the sharks were the real “lions” of this watery domain. Thousands of them had aggregated over that reef, presumably to gorge themselves on the bait and gather energy for the rigors of their springtime mating.

I was so enraptured by the scene that Capt. Brandon had to remind me why we came.“Cast, cast,” he shouted, as the biggest blacktip I’ve ever seen crossed the bow heading right to left. I tossed a greenback streamer to the marauding shark. The fish charged the offering, and I set the hook. Between its spinning, high-flying leaps, the fleeing fish spun off line deep into the backing. But Brandon maneuvered the boat to our collective advantages in ways that put maximum pressure on the shark, which allowed us to land it quickly, without thoroughly exhausting the animal.

We photographed it. Then we took the measurements necessary to use in a formula that closely estimates weight. We felt a rush of excitement and relief as we realized we’d broken a Texas state record, while the shark swam vigorously away. The fish, landed on a 12-weight fly rod and 20-pound tippet, weighed and estimated 110 pounds.

No Hands Clapping

My record hardly made a splash in the news at the time. Media coverage of sharks in Texas typically focuses on Mexican lanchas poaching the animals in U.S. waters to sell in the fin trade—a trade that is an international scourge and blight on marine ecosystems.

Sadly, U.S. fishermen and seafood purveyors are still allowed to participate in an industry that is decimating ocean ecosystems around the world. The legal sale of shark fins by U.S. vendors perpetuates the market, one that encourages illegal fishing and overfishing all over the world. Poorly regulated or unregulated shark fishing can and has caused ecosystems to collapse, along with fishing-based economies.

Essential Predators

Depending on the species, sharks are high-level or apex predators. Their positions at the top of food webs put them in charge of removing the weak and the sick from fish and invertebrate populations lower on the food web, and of keeping the food web in balance. Without sharks, populations of predators lower in the food web can grow out of balance.

On a trip to The Bahamas, a nation that has banned commercial shark fishing to protect its ecosystems and tourism, a biologist-turned-fishing-guide taught me how sharks are essential in keeping jack populations in check. If jacks become overpopulated, they eat too many of the parrotfish and other grazers that clean algae from corals and seagrasses. That’s just one way that sharks protect robust, balanced food webs.

Economics 101

Recreational fishing, especially fishing-related travel, is expensive. I shudder to think what I’ve spent over the years getting myself and my expensive equipment into the world’s most sublime waters. Anglers like me drive the massive boat and tackle industries, as well as coastal economies, around the nation, and around the world. But like most anglers, I’m not going to spend hard-earned money to visit places with badly damaged ecosystems devoid of high-level predators. In fact, it angers me when mismanagement of a fishery or ecosystem undermines my investments in our sport.

There are a couple of ways to ruin coastal and marine ecosystems, and the economies they support. Pollution may be the most recognized and recognizable culprit. But overfishing—especially overfishing of high-level predators—especially in combination with pollution and habitat loss—is a quick course to collapse and economic despair.

According to experts, exports of shark fins generates only about $1 million annually for U.S. purveyors. I would wager that anglers spend at least that much in every shark-fishing destination around the country, in places such as Palm Beach, Florida and the Florida Keys, Louisiana, as well as in southeast Texas and Southern California. That’s not counting the goods and services that living sharks provide ecosystems.

Most shark species are easily overfished. They live a long time and reproduce infrequently, giving live birth to a few offspring every few years. Sadly, we are killing sharks at perilous rates, amid mountains of uncertainty, and in changing ecosystems.

By the numbers

U.S. fisheries managers don’t have adequate stock status data for over 62% of domestic shark stocks. Only 12 out of 64 stocks with data are not experiencing overfishing and are not overfished. That’s alarming. One of the driving factors behind shark mortality is the demand for their fins, which I contend should be eliminated in the United States.

Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (S. 877)

Shark finning is illegal in U.S. waters. However, fins can be sold as part of the whole shark or detached once the shark is onshore. The import/export trade also results in thousands of pounds of shark fins passing through U.S. ports and ending up in our marketplaces. Many of the fins come from countries with lax or non-existent shark-fishing regulations, including countries that still allow shark finning.

By allowing the sale of shark fins, and supporting illegal and unsustainable shark fishing, the United States besmirches its reputation as a leader in marine conservation. In fact, the very practice of shark finning flies in the face a national conservation ethos evidenced by our stewardship of special ecosystems through national parks, self-imposed excise taxes on recreational fishing gear that benefit wildlife, and massive investments in ecosystem restoration initiatives such as Everglades Restoration.

The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (S. 877), which just passed the U.S. House of Representatives, would prohibit the possession, sale and trade of shark fins in the United States. It would not prohibit the sale of shark meat, including the sale of meat from the increasingly popular and prolific spiny dogfish.Now it’s the Senate’s turn: passing the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act into law would go a long way toward protecting sharks, repairing our reputation as conservationists, and protecting domestic and international ecosystems that drive coastal economies. The Senate needs to pass S. 877 now.
Photo by Capt. Scott Hamilton