Shark Fin Controversy

State and federal governments debate shark finning laws

A metro ad created by the Oceana targeted at NOAA.

A metro ad created by the Oceana targeted at NOAA.

NOAA, the federal agency responsible for overseeing the country's oceans and atmosphere, is attempting to strengthen an existing federal law against shark finning. While it would be easy to assume that advocates for the protection of sharks would be greeting these measures warmly, the reality is anything but.

As it currently stands, under federal law shark finning is illegal in the United States, but the specific trade of shark fins is allowed. Over the course of the past few years, eight US states (CA, WA, ME, HI, IL, DE, NY, OR) have passed stringent laws banning shark finning and the trade or possession of shark fins in their waters and territories.  NOAA is hoping to implement a new rule that would see the existing federal law preempt the state laws. (When challenged, federal laws will typically supersede state laws.)

Pew, an advocacy group based out of D.C., has been a vocal proponent of ending shark finning—an act that claims the lives of tens of millions of sharks every year—as well as the trade of shark fins and believes that the existing state laws are infinitely more effective at protecting sharks than the federal law.

Under federal law, sharks have to be brought to shore with their fins attached, but there have been instances where some fishermen would find loopholes either by "stacking" the fins—essentially by declaring one or two carcasses while bringing in numerous fins—or transferring a large amount of fins to other non-fishing boats.

Why would NOAA want to have the federal law preempt the state law? Essentially, they believe that the federal law is effective, but the state laws go too far and bans the fishing of sharks altogether. Further, they believe that a market exists for shark meat and that market should be respected.

Pew's Angelo Villagomez, who has been closely following the developments, believes that the federal government should let the states implement their own laws protecting sharks.

"The rule being proposed by NOAA, who have jurisdiction over federal fisheries, could override the state trade laws that Pacific states and Territories put into place to enhance conservation of these critical [shark] populations," said Villagomez. "If the federal government is successful, sharks caught in the waters off of Hawaii could be once again caught, landed and their fins exported. NOAA should take notice of the extremely strong opposition to any attempts to overturn state laws, including from members of congress, governors, state senators, and 180,000 supporters."

Beginning last year, Oceana, an organization focused on ocean conservation, launched an ad campaign in New York City targeted at NOAA’s decision to challenge state laws.

"NOAA's action just doesn't make sense," said Dominique Cano-Stocco, campaign director at Oceana. "The state laws are incredibly important. By stopping the trade of shark fins, states are helping to close a loophole in the federal law. NOAA should side with sharks, not shark finners."

It's estimated that more than 70 million sharks are killed every year. Much of the demand comes from Asia, where shark fin soup is a delicacy. As the ocean's apex predator, environmental advocates worry that their demise could create serious problems for our oceans.

"I really hope that the federal law doesn't supersede the state law," says Mike Coots, who lost his leg in a shark attack but remains an advocate for their protection. "We've worked really hard to end the practice here in Hawaii and other states have followed our lead. It would be a real blow for our movement if the state law is challenged by the federal law."