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November 28, 2014
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Banning shark fins in Pennsylvania

Fresh shark fins drying on sidewalk in Hong Kong.
Contributed photo by Nicholas Wang


HARRISBURG, PA — Democratic Senator Daylin Leach and Republican Richard Alloway have been trying for nearly two years to get legislation passed in Pennsylvania that would ban the possession and sale of shark fins. In December 2013, the two announced that support for their bill is growing, and has picked up the endorsement of the advocacy group Born Free USA.

Leach said, “I am happy to announce that national conservation organization Born Free USA has joined our fight to protect the lives and welfare of sharks, and I thank them for their support,” Leach said. “We’re forming a coalition of advocates statewide committed to protecting these animals, which are so essential to marine life, and we are hopeful that this bill will be signed into law this session.”

In one of the more ironic food trends at the end of the 20th century, the demand for shark fins, and the soup it’s named after began to soar, at least in part due to the growing wealth of the middle class in China. The irony is that most sources who expressed a view on the matter say that shark fins have almost no flavor, and yet sharks are being hunted and killed in such numbers that some species are on the brink of extinction.

There are various pressures on shark populations all over the globe, not just from people who like to eat shark fin soup, but the method by which fins are acquired, called “finning,” is clearly responsible for the demise of many sharks of varying species. Finning is a process by which a shark is captured and all or most of the fish’s fins are removed, and the shark is then dumped back into the ocean. Not being able to move through the water, the shark dies a slow death or is eaten by other ocean dwellers.

Hunters who practice finning do so because throwing the shark back into the ocean leaves more room on the boat to collect more of the fins, which are much more valuable than the rest of the fish. Various sources say that shark fins can sell at prices ranging up to $200 per pound, but those sources also say that a single fin from a prized species can go much higher. Information from the website sharkangels.org says, “A single whale shark pectoral fin can sell for up to $100,000,” although that figure can’t be confirmed elsewhere.

It’s not easy to say just how many sharks are finned each year, but an English researcher came up with the most quoted figures. Shelley Clarke, who according to her website, “received a doctorate in quantitative fisheries science from Imperial College London in 2003 for her ground-breaking study of the shark fin trade,” spent time with a team of researchers investigating the fin trade.

In estimating the number of sharks taken each year, Clarke wrote, “There were inevitably many unknowns in the formula, and being a scientist, I did my best to bracket these with high and low estimates and to carry through these unknowns as a range. My conclusion was that as of 2000, the fins of 38 million sharks per year were being traded through the fin markets, but that the number could range as low as 26 million or as high as 73 million.”

Regardless of the number of sharks that are killed for their fins each year, it’s clear that many species are declining. An organization called the International Union for the Conservation of Nature maintains a Red List of Threatened Species, and about 300 different sharks are listed. In describing the population trends of the various species, many are described as unknown or decreasing, but only a handful are described as having a stable population.

For some species the decline is dramatic. According to the Red List, the oceanic white tip shark, which is large and used to be abundant over most of the oceans of the world, is “subject to fishing pressure virtually throughout its range… Its large fins are highly prized in international trade although the carcass is often discarded.” Declines of the populations of the shark in the Gulf of Mexico and portions of the Atlantic Ocean were estimated at over 90% from the 1950s through the late 1990s.

While there are various pressures on shark populations, finning is a brutal and visible one that can be diminished through legislation, and such legislation is spreading. (While there is a federal law, which bans finning, there is no federal law banning the possession and sale of fins.) California, which had been the second-largest market for shark fins outside of China, passed a law in September 2011 that banned the sale, trade and possession of shark fins.

Following the lead of California, other states such as New York and Delaware also passed legislation banning the sale and possession of shark fins, bringing the total to eight states and three U.S. territories that have adopted such bans.

In September 2014, the countries and other parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will no longer be able to take some species of shark unless they have a CITES permit demonstrating that the sharks have been harvested sustainably and legally. The protected sharks will include the oceanic white tip, scalloped hammerhead shark and porbeagle shark.

But perhaps the most important step taken to dampen the demand for shark fins soup, which was at one time only available to the wealthiest residents of China, came from the Chinese government. On December 10, 2013, the Xinhua News Agency reported that the Communist Party of China announced a ban at official functions on shark fin soup, along with bird’s nest soup and some other wild animal products.

The news agency reported that the ban was “part of a sweeping government crackdown on corruption, excessive spending and extravagance.”

“I think it is great. I think it is extremely important for a whole bunch of reasons,” said Matthew Durnin, a former director of science at the Nature Conservancy who has spent 20 years in China working on projects concerning endangered species.

“Something that is at this higher level in China really sets a precedent that needs to be set.”