U.S. will ban the sale of shark fins. Here’s why.

Reuters file photo
Workers lay out pieces of shark fin to dry on a rooftop of a factory building in Hong Kong January 2, 2013.

To save a fearsome predator from extinction, the United States is on the verge of putting in place a near total ban on buying and selling fins sliced off of sharks.

Late Thursday, the Senate approved language making it illegal, with few exceptions, to trade shark fins. The provision, which the House had inserted into an annual military policy bill, is now headed to President Joe Biden for his signature.

U.S. lawmakers hope to put a dent into a worldwide shark trade that harvests between 26 million and 73 million sharks a year, according to one estimate. Fishers abroad often chop the fins from sharks while still alive and dump the bodies overboard.

The practice, called finning, leaves the fish unable to swim and survive.

“We understand that sharks are critical to life in the ocean,” Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D), a nonvoting delegate in the House for the Northern Mariana Islands who spearheaded the bipartisan bill with Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), said in a statement. “Yet, despite their importance ecologically and economically, sharks are in serious trouble.”

But American shark fishers warn that banning fin sales here will result in fishers throwing away fins and do nothing to curb overfishing in foreign waters that are not as well regulated as U.S. fisheries. And some members of Asian communities, where shark fin soup is served at celebratory meals, have criticized past limits on shark fin sales as unfair.

“It’d be like telling a farmer to waste half of a chicken or half of a cow,” said Kevin Wark, a commercial fisher who catches shark and monkfish out of Barnegat Light, N.J. “It’s just not going to work out for us.”

In fish markets, the fin is the most valuable part of a shark. The flat appendage is a main ingredient in shark fin soup, a delicacy in China and other countries where, for centuries, the brothy dish has traditionally been served at weddings and other big events.

But in Earth’s oceans, the apex predator is prized for a different reason.

In the popular imagination, sharks have recently gone from a demon fish that terrorizes swimmers to a conservation darling, recognized for helping to keep prey populations in check in its position atop the ocean food web.

But sharks tend to grow slowly and, for some species, produce few pups per litter, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Many species are now in serious trouble.

A third of sharks, rays and other cartilaginous fish are at risk of extinction, making the group of species among the most threatened vertebrates in the world.

At least a dozen states have already banned shark fin sales, according to the environmental group WildAid. And finning is already illegal in U.S. waters. Boats that catch sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Coast need to bring the entire fish ashore.

U.S. fishers will still be able to catch sharks and sell the rest of their meat. After New Jersey put in place a statewide fin sales ban, Wark said he must cut off and throw away the fins to bring the rest of the shark to market.

The ban, he added, is a “poster child of people doing something to make themselves feel good and think that they’re going to save the species.”

“It just creates a system of waste,” he added.

When California moved forward with its own fin ban about a decade ago, it caused consternation among many Asian Americans, even those who supported the prohibition.

“It’s not that this ban is ‘racist’ as some have put it, it’s that it’s the kind of thing that smells a bit of cynical political posturing,” cookbook editor and radio host Francis Lam wrote in a 2011 Salon article, which he said in a direct message on Twitter that he still stands by today.

Shaun Gehan, a lawyer who represents commercial fishers, said the industry has already been hit hard by a slump in sales after pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic limited access to Asian markets. The local ban, he added, does little to solve unsustainable fishing practices abroad.

“It certainly hurts a small, sustainable sector of the domestic fishing industry. But it’s also stupid,” Gehan said. “It does nothing to solve the problem where it actually occurs.”

Gib Brogan, a campaign manager at the advocacy group Oceana, which supports the fin sales ban, said, “The shark fin legislation is going to be a strong signal from the United States that the shark fin trade is not sustainable and that the United States won’t be part of it.”

“This has been many years and many Congresses that we’ve been pushing for this,” Brogan added.

The legislation comes on the heels of a November vote by countries participating in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to expand the number of shark species protected.

The U.S. ban comes with a few exceptions, including allowing the sale of fins from certain dogfish sharks. The defense authorization act also would reauthorize programs supporting the conservation of coral reefs and the rehabilitation of marine mammals.

“This will be a very good thing for the oceans, not just for sharks,” Brogan said.