As the UN meets in Montreal to discuss saving biodiversity without the US, whose representatives are joining only as observers, conservationists are hailing one American step in the right direction: a likely ban on the trade of shark fins.
Although shark finning – the practice of cutting off shark fins and dumping the rest of the body back into the ocean – is illegal in the US, much of the trade in fins happens in US territory. As many as 73 million sharks are finned around the world each year.
The new bill, which would ban the buying and selling shark fins in the US, is being included in the broader defense spending bill that was passed by the House of Representatives and Senate and is on its way to Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
The Cop15 discussions in Montreal have been criticised for not adequately prioritising ocean life, which represents about 95% of the biosphere and the majority of life on Earth. There are only two instances of the word “ocean” included in the latest 10-page, 5,000-word working agreement.
The US has come under particular fire among conservationists at Cop15 for not signing the Convention on Biological Diversity 30 years ago – the only country other than the Vatican not to do so.
Joe Biden’s administration, however, has emphasised that the US intends to honour the 30×30 pledge to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030, which has become the central focus of the major UN talks in Montreal.
The shark bill represents part of that effort. It makes it illegal “to possess, buy, sell, or transport shark fins or any product containing shark fins, except for certain dogfish fins” and includes penalties under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Even the possession of fins caught abroad will become illegal.
Shark species have declined by 71% since the 1970s, due mainly to overfishing.
The shark-fin trade was regulated at last in a landmark decision at a major international wildlife conference, Cites, in Panama last month. The ruling took major steps to address the overfishing and lack of regulation that has pushed more than a third of the world’s 500-plus shark species toward extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The ruling extended trade restrictions to more than 90 shark species that are increasingly being hunted not only for their fins, but also their meat, some of which ends up in pet food.
But it is shark fins that remain the most lucrative part of the shark. Much of the dried fins make their way in undeclared shipments to various parts of Asia, where shark fin soup is a delicacy.
Gib Brogan, campaign director with the ocean conservation group Oceana, told the Associated Press: “Our ports are no longer open for business for shark fins. That will take them out of the supply chain and we expect it to disrupt the global fin market.”
Although some scientists who study shark fisheries believe the move will only shut down a regulated American fishery for shark meat and other legal products, driving more exploitation in parts of the world where shark fishing is less sustainable, conservationists say the US must take the lead on banning the trade – pointing to the success of the US ban on ivory trading helping to drive a global movement to protect African elephants.
Canada has already banned the shark fin trade.