The Fight Over Shark Fins in Florida

The shark population is being decimated by overfishing and a changing climate in the form of ocean acidification and habitat degradation

The fight for sharks is converging on Florida.

With the new legislative session next in September, conservation groups are pushing for measures at both the state and federal level to ban one of the largest threats to the shark population – the fin trade.

Between 100 million and 200 million sharks are killed every year. An estimated 73 million of those are killed for their fins. 

“The shark fin trade is a global market for shark fins,” Trish Albano, a shark researcher at the University of Miami’s Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, told NBC 6 South Florida. “The shark fin is being used to make shark fin soup.”

But it’s the volume and the process of finning that are the motivators behind the efforts for a new ban.

The shark population is being decimated globally. Between overfishing and a changing climate in the form of ocean acidification and habitat degradation, nearly 25% of shark species are threatened with extinction.

West Palm Beach native Jim Abernethy has been diving with sharks for more than 50 years. He runs shark diving tours from Jupiter, regularly removing fishing hooks from many of their mouths.

“The U.S. is the seventh worst country in the world for killing sharks and Florida is the worst state in the nation,” Abernethy said. “In Florida, we kill 1.5 million sharks per year. Of that, 900,000 are from the commercial shark fishery. Ninety percent of all the large sharks worldwide have already been removed.”

While those numbers are deeply troubling to researchers and conservationists, the way the fins are collected is even more so.

“The shark finning practice is extremely cruel and inhumane,” Oceana spokesperson Catherine Uden, who is a South Florida resident, said. “It is usually done where the shark is caught, the fins are cut off of its body while it’s still alive and dumped back in the ocean where they fall and drown.”

Sharks cannot swim or float without their fins, so when they are finned alive, they sink to the ocean floor and face a fate of being eaten, bleeding out or slowly suffocating.

That process is illegal in the United States when it’s at sea. However, it is legal to fin a shark on land in Florida and many other states, leading a call to action by groups trying to protect the ocean predators.

“Oceana is working on the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act,” Uden said. “The Shark Fin Elimination Act would be a ban on the sale and trade of shark fins in the United States.”

And they aren’t alone.

Shara Teter and Cassandra Scott and helping push measures in Tallahassee through their group, Shark Allies.

“Right now, Shark Allies is advocating for a bill to ban the fin trade in Florida,” Teter said. “It would ban the sale, trade and possession of any fins here in the state. So that would stop the import and export of fins into that global market.”

Twelve states have already banned the trade, including California and New York. Those bans have led to a boom of the trade in Florida’s ports.

“Miami is the hub of the shark fin trade,” Abernathy said. “We don’t want to be part of the problem that’s taking all of the fins from Ecuador and Costa Rica that come through Miami in order to go to Asia where the demand is.”

Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy and a status symbol in many Asian countries and Hong Kong has the largest fin market in the world.

However, the overfishing for the fin trade is unsustainable. Sharks are being killed much faster than they can reproduce.  Sharks don’t produce millions of eggs like most fish. They breed similar to mammals – slowly and very few young at a time.

If the trends continue, the shark population could collapse having potentially catastrophic unintended consequences.

“Sharks have been around for 400 million years. They have shaped the oceans,” Scott said.  “You can think of them as the white blood cells. They eliminate any of the diseased, dying or dead. So if you were to take any of those apex predators out, the equilibrium of those ecosystems would collapse.”

Abernathy agrees.

“We need sharks for the state of our oceans. We need healthy oceans. It is, quite simply, the heart of our planet. When it dies, we all die," Abernathy said.

The economic case for a ban is strong. Shark tourism is booming in Florida. Oceana estimates the state rakes in as much as $377 million a year. Conversely, the shark fin trade in the state is estimated to only generate one million for commercial fisherman.

“There’s really no comparison,” according to Scott.  “If we put all of our focus on Florida, this could be a potential model for how the rest of the world could be dealing with the shark fin trade.”

The forces opposing these bans involve local fisherman, but support seems to be broad publicly and politically.

“It is supported by both Republicans and Democrats,” according to Uden. “We have over 220 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives. We are hopeful that it will pass this year because eight of 10 Americans support a ban.”

Bills have failed before, but the two-pronged approach leaves these conservationists hopeful.

If they fail again, Teter would be undeterred.

“We’re just gonna keep trying," Teter said.

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