November 14, 2007
Shark Finning Regulations
The first multi-lateral organization to address the issue of shark finning was the UN Food and Agriculture Organization which, in 1999, produced its International Plan of Action for Sharks. This plan recommended the full utilization of sharks. Since then, the UN General Assembly and some Regional Fisheries Management Organizations have issued recommendations that sharks should not be killed for their fins and should be fully utilized. While none of these recommendations are legally binding, they serve to highlight the problem of finning and to remind member nations of their responsibility to conserve sharks.
A number of individual countries have also banned finning, and these national bans do have a legal basis. In some cases, only whole sharks may be landed. In other cases, the ban amounts to a rule that a vessel may not land shark fins that weigh more than 5 percent of the "dressed" weight of the sharks: that is, the weight of the carcass after the removal of the head and guts.
However, regulations of some countries allow the landing of fins that weigh five percent of the whole weight of the shark. While this may seem a minor point, it does, in fact, make a very great difference to the number of sharks that are actually finned, because a shark's liver is extremely heavy in relation to its body weight. Some have argued that this rule allows two sharks to be finned for every three that are caught.
In contrast, a "fins naturally attached" policy with no exceptions is not only a more effective way of protecting sharks from being exploited by the practice of finning, it is also a policy that does not leave loopholes that opportunistic fishermen may take advantage of.
While the recommendations issued to date have helped considerably to encourage countries to understand the effect that widespread finning has on shark populations, more must be done. First, with regard to the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, the geographical "gaps" must be filled, in order to cover as many of the world's sea areas as possible. Second, only a very small number of countries have banned finning, and many more need to be encouraged to enact legislation. Third, those recommendations that are weak or open to interpretation need to be re-issued with much more specific language requiring all sharks to be landed with their fins attached. Finally, the consumption of shark products should be discouraged in all countries.
With regard to the enforcement of existing regulations, Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and national governments must require on-board observers, Vessel Monitoring Systems, and dockside inspections to ensure compliance. Those companies and vessels that violate the regulations should be fined and prohibited from fishing.
Protecting public health
Individual governments and the World Health Organization need to issue public health advisories against consuming shark fin soup due to the risk of mercury poisoning. While some governments have issued warnings about mercury in shark meat it is important that the general public understand the risk to their health from consuming shark fin soup.