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Seth Atkinson’s Blog

It's a Happy New Year for Sharks

Seth Atkinson

Posted January 11, 2013

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Sharks have had a rough run of it. Just recently, an estimated 18,000 shark fins were discovered drying on a rooftop in Hong Kong, placed there by the owners to avoid public scrutiny. Representing just a fraction of the estimated 26-73 million sharks killed worldwide each year, the recent discovery was a graphic reminder of the ongoing slaughter of these magnificent animals for their fins. 


                                             Photo copyright Gary Stokes / Sea Shepherd 2013

The new year, however, also brought good news:

Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a decision that should give sharks everywhere--and their human allies--cause to celebrate. The court rejected a request by industry groups to stop California from enforcing its recently-passed shark fin ban. By allowing the state to enforce its eco-friendly law, the court reached the correct answer to some tricky legal issues, and set an important precedent.

The court case deals with a law that was passed in 2011, designed to help protect sharks. Responding to dwindling shark populations worldwide, the California legislature enacted Assembly Bills 376 and 853, collectively known as the Shark Fin Ban. These bills were signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 7, 2011, and they prohibit the possession, sale, or trade of shark fins in the state of California.

Why is it important to ban shark fins in California? As noted above, sharks are killed by the tens of millions for their fins, which command a high price in certain markets. Often the sharks are killed with the brutal practice of "finning," wherein a shark's fins are hacked off and the animal is dumped back into the water to bleed to death, drown, or be eaten by other animals. Many people think this practice alone is reason enough to ban shark fins. Furthermore, the slaughter of sharks worldwide has massive impacts on ocean ecosystem health. When an apex predator like a shark is removed from an ecosystem, its prey species experiences a population boom. This, in turn, affects the next species down the food chain--sometimes extending all the way down the chain to species like shellfish and shrimp. These "trophic cascades" can alter an ecosystem profoundly, sometimes in irreversible ways.

Sharks are vulnerable, too, despite their fearsome image. They tend to be slow-growing, they reach sexual maturity at a late age, and generally they produce few offspring. For these reasons sharks cannot withstand high levels of mortality, and their populations drop quickly when subjected to fishing. We've learned this the hard way; one study estimates shark populations worldwide have declined more than 90% in recent history.

The California state legislature recognized all of these things--that millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins, often by finning, and that this hurts our ocean ecosystems--and resolved to do what it could to help. By banning shark fins, the legislature closed off California as an end market for shark fins, thereby reducing global demand and, hopefully, the number of sharks killed each year.

Sharks and their allies cheered when the California shark fin ban was enacted, but inevitably, some people were unhappy. Several groups of merchants and restaurants were vocal in their opposition to the ban, as they were currently profiting from the trade in shark fins. Two of them, the Chinatown Neighborhood Association and Asian Americans for Political Advancement, sued the state, hoping to convince a court to strike down the fin ban.

Plaintiffs in Chinatown Neighborhood Association v. Brown claimed the ban was racially motivated and intended to discriminate against Chinese-Americans, who are the primary consumers of shark fins (in the form of shark fin soup). They also claimed the ban was unnecessary, because not every single species of shark in the world is in danger of extinction yet, and because federal law already bans the act of finning in U.S. waters. None of these are good arguments, and the court rejected them in an initial skirmish last week. In denying the Plaintiffs' request for an injunction, the court accurately noted that the California legislature was trying to help sharks and ocean ecosystem health, not discriminate against Chinese-Americans, when it passed the fin ban. The court also correctly explained that sharks need not be entirely extinct, in order for us to be legitimately concerned about them. Finally, the court clearly understood the mechanism by which the California shark fin ban works--that is, by closing off an end use market, the ban reduces global demand and thereby helps to reduce the slaughter of sharks.

At this point the lawsuit is not over; the recent court order doesn't dismiss the case, it just denies the Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction. That said, it's unlikely the Plaintiffs will ever win, unless they somehow provide new evidence or new arguments--which is not really possible, since the facts are more or less undisputed. Everybody at the time of the law's passage recognized it was intended to help sharks, not discriminate against Chinese-Americans, and the scientific and economic underpinnings of the law are well-established. So although their lawsuit is still alive, Plaintiffs may realize that they have nothing to stand on, and voluntarily dismiss the case. One can at least hope.

Steve Garner Flickr Creative Commons Shark Pic.jpg

                                                Photo by Steve Garner, Flickr Creative Commons

So even though the lawsuit is not over, it's a happy new year for sharks. These are complicated issues, and the court did an admirable job sorting them out. By learning the
science and economics, and correctly applying the law, the U.S. District Court has provided an important precedent upholding the constitutionality of state shark fin bans. Hopefully this will inform other lawsuits--such as the similar case in California state court--and lead to a smoother road for shark advocacy in the future.

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Mark TwinamJan 20 2013 05:18 PM

Most of the sharks caught in the world are used for food first and fins second. I catch sharks commercially. If it's not right for me to keep the fins and throw the meat back why is it smart to keep the meat and throw the valuable fins back? Most sharks are not endangered. Give one real example of a fish overpopulating because there are no sharks.

David StillerJan 21 2013 02:53 PM

Your statement that 'one study says that shark populations worldwide have declined by 90% recently ' is absurd. What agency provided that false info?
The US fishermen have been extremely regulated with draconian measures. They are only allowed 33 sharks per trip. They have to keep the first 33 sharks and throw any extras back. Highly migratory species division made that rule several years ago. 33 sharks per trip is just enough for fishermen to scrape by on. Providing they have a small and very fuel efficient vessel. The meat is always sold. And now without a fin market , all large coastal and pelagic sharks fishermen will suffer. If California is going to ban shark fins indefinitely, it needs to go ahead and ban all shark products. Including liver oil, meat, hides, and cartilage. And who in there right mind cuts fins off a live eight foot shark anyways? All the fins in your picture look like they came from 7' -10' sharks.

Seth AtkinsonJan 22 2013 02:40 PM

Thanks David, I appreciate the input. It sounds like the main difference in perspective here is that you're talking about legal shark fishing in U.S. waters, whereas the California shark fin ban is designed to address something else--shark fishing in foreign waters and on the high seas, as well as illegal shark fishing in U.S. waters. I agree with you that U.S. shark fisheries are regulated, and finning is already illegal under federal law. So the California shark fin ban isn't intended to affect that. The problem comes in foreign and international waters (and to some extent with illegal fishing in U.S. waters), where there's no effective regulation. Because there's no limits on the number of sharks a fisherman can catch, and there's no prohibition on finning, it's actually a common practice to go out with gillnets or longlines and catch vast amounts of sharks, cut off their fins, discard the carcasses, and come back to port with a cargo hold full of shark fins. It's simply more profitable; a cargo hold full of fins is worth a huge amount of money, and can make a fisherman in Indonesia or the Philippines a relatively rich man. The real tragedy is that this happens--as you accurately observe--with even the big ones, like 7' - 10' sharks. So that's what the California law is trying to deal with. The final wrinkle is that once a shark fin is cut off and processed, it's almost impossible to tell where it's from, so making an exception to the shark fin ban for U.S.-caught sharks just isn't workable. I understand your frustration, though, and really it should be directed at all the non-U.S. fishermen (and illegal fishermen here in the U.S.) who are killing massive numbers of sharks and wasting the meat, at the same time as decimating ecosystems. If they weren't doing that, then it would be absolutely fine to allow the sale of U.S.-caught shark fins.

As for the study on global shark population declines, I was referring specifically to Heike K. Lotze & Boris Worm, Historical Baselines for Large Marine Animals, 24 Trends in Ecology & Evolution 254 (2009). You can find the abstract here: Again, remember that we're talking mostly about populations outside U.S. waters.

Seth AtkinsonJan 22 2013 02:57 PM

Thanks for the comment, Mark. I'm glad to hear from another U.S. shark fisherman on this subject. As I noted in replying to David, shark fin bans are primarily intended to affect shark fishing in foreign and international waters, as well as illegal shark fishing in U.S. waters. Fishermen like you who follow the rules and operate in a regulated fishery are definitely not the target of this law. In fact, if everyone around the world followed your example, shark populations would be much healthier and this kind of law would not be necessary.

As for trophic cascades happening when sharks are removed from an ecosystem, there are several examples from the scientific literature. In one study, populations of rays, skates, and small sharks were shown to have increased in the Northwest Atlantic over the past three decades, as a result of population declines in eleven types of apex-predator sharks. See Ransom A. Myers et al., Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from a Coastal Ocean, 315 Science 1846 (2007). Another example of the ecosystem effects of removing sharks is provided by a more-recent study of predator sharks and their prey, longheaded eagle rays (Aetobatus flagellum) in Japan. That study found that a decrease in shark populations has resulted in a population increase for the rays. The population increase in rays, in turn, has led to the decimation of wild stocks and cultured populations of several shellfish species, which are the rays’ prey. See Darlene Crist et al., World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life (2009). The concept of trophic cascades is discussed clearly in Francisco Ferretti et al., Patterns and Ecosystem Consequences of Shark Declines in the Ocean, 13 Ecology Letters 1055, 1057 (2010). Again, recall that well-managed shark fisheries (like yours, hopefully) should not have this problem.

Autumn GoldJan 30 2013 11:03 PM

Actually most sharks are not consumed for food first and fins second. Most sharks are actually by-catch of other fishing industries. Only 10% of commercial fishing is actual target species. Most sharks are simply left for dead or disposed of after removing the fins, so finning is wasteful. And just because fishermen are regulated how many of them are actually honest? Unless there is someone standing on deck of the ship 24-7 we do not actually know the amount of waste produced by commercial fishing. So yes the added market demand for FINS is extremely wasteful because most fishermen do not collaborate and keep all of their by-catch. People go out to target one specific item and yet produce about 90% waste by killing or catching other non-desired species.

Mark TwinamFeb 6 2013 06:38 PM

Hi Autumn!

If a recreational fisherman keeps undersized fish or over the bag limit should all recreational fishing be banned?

If I am legally fishing for sharks I should not have to suffer low fin prices with the illegal fisherman, I should get more money for my fins after the illegal fishing is stopped.

Sharks are a bycatch in many fisheries. Why not work to make them marketable as the Spanish have done with Bluesharks? A shark worth money will come to the dock.

If after the last 30 years of intensive fishing in US waters there are still lots of sharks the sky is not falling yet:)

Mark TwinamFeb 6 2013 06:48 PM

Thanks for commenting Seth!

You gave a couple of examples. Here is one from me. A couple of years ago a longline study was done of the East Coast of Florida. 180 swordfish sets caught and released 5 sea turtles alive. They also caught 150 Tiger sharks with about 5 of them dead. How many Turtles would those 5 Tiger sharks eaten over their lifespan? Could we say that if we had intentionally killed 15 more of the Tigers that sea turtles would have benefited?

It's not all a onesided story. Thanks for the opportunity to speak up about it.

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