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After more than three decades of stringent conservation measures and sacrifices by American shark fishermen, domestic shark populations are on the rise. But just as fishermen are on the verge of being able to realize the reward for years of painful cuts and downsizing, Congress is considering a bill that will effectively end the fishery.
Laudable in intent—attacking the wasteful practice of harvesting sharks solely for fins—the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act is likely to do more harm than good, both to the sharks it seeks to protect and to American fishermen abiding by the world’s strictest rules.
Its sponsors, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Edward Royce (R-Calif.), would mandate discarding shark fins and ban their importation or sale. Unlike ivory, however, the U.S. is a very minor market for fins. All fins produced domestically are exported, mostly to China.
Notably, and with industry support, shark finning has been illegal in the U.S. since 1993. Over time, that ban has been expanded and measures to ensure effective enforcement have been created. Those include stiff penalties, at-sea and dockside enforcement, and a requirement to land sharks with fins attached. Combined with scientifically determined catch limits, this has led to a rebound in shark populations that has been recognized by federal managers, independent shark experts, and academic research institutions.
The bill will, as a practical matter, end domestic commercial shark fishing because, on average, fins account for half the value of the landed catch. Absent that income, fishermen would lose money catching and landing these fish. The ban also runs counter to the main principle behind this nation’s fisheries law: to maximize the economic return from sustainable use of our marine resources.
In short, the legislation harms American fishing families and coastal communities merely to send a message about unsustainable and cruel fishing practices abroad.
This message will not be heeded. No country is likely to follow us down the path of eliminating jobs and export revenue by banning shark fin sales. Rather, the roughly three percent of fins the U.S. exports to world markets will be replaced by those taken in less well-managed fisheries. The fin trade will continue.
This bill also deprives the United States of any leverage to ensure that other countries not only prohibit the practice of finning, but sustainably manage these species. Rather than ceding trade in shark fins to others, we should take the lead in promoting full utilization of harvested sharks while using existing authority to discourage overharvesting globally.
Congress can help promote this goal. In 2010, it required the Secretary of Commerce to identify nations that fail to adopt comparable shark conservation measures for their fishing fleets operating in international waters. Six years later, that task remains unfulfilled. Congress must insist on compliance.
Existing law also allows the United States to ban fish products from nations that fail to adhere to duties under regional fisheries agreements. Congress should insist that the Trump administration seek amendments to these laws that extend anti-finning measures and policies to prevent shark overfishing to national waters. Sharks are highly migratory, spending only some time in any one nation’s waters. Local actions have global effects.
The Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act would take this country off the playing field. Rather than punishing responsible American fishermen, Congress should seek instead to bring others up to our same high standards.
Shaun Gehan is a lawyer representing the Sustainable Shark Alliance, a coalition of shark fishermen and seafood dealers that advocates for sustainable U.S. shark fisheries and supports healthy shark populations.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.