A federal ban on the shark fin trade is on the cusp of becoming law. Why does the head of U.S. fisheries oppose it?

The agency that oversees sustainable fishing wants to protect fin sales, arguing that a prohibition would devastate domestic fishermen.

Late last November, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers voted to pass a bill that would prohibit the possession of shark fins, as well as all sales, imports, and exports of the product. An identical bill in the Senate had already been green lit by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee, though it still awaits a full vote. Both bills are designed to clamp down on the global shark fin trade, which marine conservationists have long argued is driving the decline of shark stocks. Both bills would exempt the use of fins in museums, and for scientific research.

Similar legislation has been floated in previous sessions of Congress, but the recent moves are the closest a ban has ever come to fruition. And if the Trump administration has its way, it won’t move any further.

Last week, a top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, which oversees sustainable fishing, issued a statement disavowing federal and state-level attempts to end shark fin sales.

Shark fins are a hot commodity in, particularly in Asian markets, where their texture—and role as a wealth signifier—makes them a coveted ingredient in soups and other dishes.

“Preventing shark fishermen from selling these fins would not improve domestic conservation and management,” wrote Chris Oliver, NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator. “We are required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to prevent overfishing in our shark fisheries regardless of whether fins are allowed to be sold or not. A ban on the sale of shark fins would only regulate which parts of a sustainably harvested shark can be used.” (The Magnuson-Stevens Act is the main law that oversees federal fisheries policies.)

In essence, Oliver’s argument was that a shark fin trade ban would not meaningfully alter the shape of the global fin trade, and that its brunt would be born by U.S. shark fishermen, who already adhere to conservation-based catch limits.

Sharks occupy a unique role in maintaining the population balance of other marine animals, as they have long life spans and few predators of their own. At the same time, shark fins are a hot commodity in the seafood industry, particularly in Asian markets, where their slippery texture—and role as a wealth signifier—makes them a coveted ingredient in soups and other dishes. A decline in shark stocks, partially human-driven, has had damaging ripple effects within a marine ecosystem, and researchers have estimated that the rate at which shark populations are declining is far greater than their ability to recover.

Animal welfare advocates denounced Oliver’s position, arguing that by participating in the shark fin economy at all, the U.S. still contributes to the decline in shark populations worldwide.

“AWI is very disappointed that NOAA’s Chris Oliver is opposed to the passage of the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019,” said Susan Millward, director of the marine animal program for the Animal Welfare Institute, in an emailed statement. “Eliminating the global trade in shark fins removes one of the biggest impediments to their continued survival…. NOAA should be helping transition domestic shark fishermen away from their reliance on selling fins, rather than supporting their role in perpetuating this barbarous and disastrous environmental practice.”

In his statement, Oliver also argued that a federal ban would “undermine our efforts to promote international dialogue and negotiations on sustainable shark management.” But not everyone is swayed by the administration’s suggestion that the U.S. can steer the conversation on fin trading only by partaking in it.

“NOAA has it backwards,” said a spokesperson for Senator Cory Booker, the primary sponsor of the Senate bill, in an emailed statement. “This is about U.S. conservation leadership: just as we removed ourselves from the trade in ivory and rhino horn, we need to shut down the shark fin trade in the United States to send a clear message to the rest of the world that it’s time to end both the supply and the demand for a commodity that is threatening shark populations worldwide.”

“But if you put a ban on the sale of fins in the States, that’s cutting [a third] of our income off of that shark alone.”

Fishermen advocates argue that a ban would effectively encourage the squandering of seafood. Both the House and Senate bills require shark fins from legally caught sharks to be “destroyed or discarded upon separation.”

“So you’re actually mandating the waste of a natural resource,” says Rick Marks, a lobbyist, representing a number of industry stakeholders. “You wouldn’t want to harvest an animal and throw parts away, right?”

It may seem illogical to pass a bill that would force fishermen to discard parts of the animals they harvest, but for some supporters, this could be an indirect way to scale back shark fishing altogether. (Representative Ted Lieu has proposed a more extreme bill that would ban the trade of all shark parts, fins or otherwise.)

The bill doesn’t target just fins of domestically caught shark, but the global trade that passes through the country. The U.S. imported an average of nearly 580,000 pounds of shark fin and exported almost 620,000 in the decade between 2000 and 2011, according to a 2015 FAO report on the global shark market. And that’s just the stuff that’s above board. Earlier this month, federal officials seized 1,000 pounds of shark fin at a Miami port, which they believed to be illegally obtained from South America and en route to Asia.

Shark fin soup

The issue of shark fin trading is intertwined with that of shark finning—a practice where fishermen remove shark fins at sea, and throw the less profitable remainder of the fish overboard, disoriented and wounded. Finning has been banned in the U.S. since 2000, and fishermen are required to bring sharks to shore with their fins attached, after which they can be removed and sold separately. However, in the past decade, numerous states, including New York, California, and Texas, have passed local bans on shark fin trading. Similar legislation has been introduced in others—most significantly Florida, a key hub in the global fin trade and where the majority of our domestic shark fishing takes place. 

Consequently, a ban on shark fin sales could take a big bite out of fishermen’s paychecks. Depending on the species, a shark’s fin can command around one-third of the value of a shark, says Jake Griffin, a commercial shark fisherman based in North Carolina.

Griffin breaks down the economics of shark fishing using an example of the blacktip shark, which is found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the coastal Atlantic. While its fins might command $9 per pound, the meat itself would only get $1 per pound. Keep in mind, however, there’s a lot more meat on a shark than there is fin, and Griffin tells me that both play an important role in his bottom line.

“We’re not targeting fins, we’re targeting to sell meat,” he says. “But if you put a ban on the sale of fins in the States, that’s cutting [a third] of our income off of that shark alone.”

“Eliminating the global trade in shark fins removes one of the biggest impediments to their continued survival.”

Sharks don’t play a huge role in U.S. fisheries overall, bringing in around $6.24 million in revenue per year at the dock-level, according to most recent NOAA data. (Salmon, by comparison, raked in $598 million.) Most of that comes from a species known as dogfish, a small shark found in the Atlantic, which is exempted in the legislation. Dogfish fins are significantly less valued than those of other sharks, Griffin notes.

Perhaps the statement issued by NOAA Fisheries shouldn’t have come as a surprise—it hewed closely with earlier messaging from the Commerce Department, another key agency that oversees the seafood industry.

“This prohibition would hurt U.S. fishermen who currently sell sharks and shark fins that are harvested sustainably under strict federal management,” wrote Michael J. Walsh Jr., the agency’s chief of staff, in a January letter to the head of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee. “A domestic ban on shark fin sales would not allow the United States to point to its own best management practices and would not put the United States in a stronger advocacy position for shark conservation and sustainable use.”

Since Booker introduced the bill last March, 43 other senators have signed on to co-sponsor it—more than any previous iteration can boast in support. If it passes, the legislation would be sent to the the president’s desk for his signature, or a veto.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.