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  • Writer's pictureScience & Environment

Sharks need a little more than just their fins attached

Anti-finning legislation is not sufficient in protecting marine apex predators, study shows

By Anastasia Goelitz

Zebra Shark by Daniel Torobekov via Pexels

In many ways, shark conservation can be considered an unprecedented success story. Despite having one of the worst reputations in the animal kingdom, largely due to vast amounts of unfavourable media, public perception of the oceans' apex predators is slowly but surely changing. Thanks to relentless campaigning from scientists, conservationists and ocean lovers, more attention has been given to the ecological importance of these animals and the threat of their steady decline through bycatch and fishing practices. Most importantly, the world has heard the story of the gruesome practice of shark finning; in this horrific act, after being relieved of their fins, the animals are thrown back into the ocean and are left to slowly suffocate as they lie on the ocean floor unable to move. 

Over the last ten years, more and more countries have started to implement legislation that regulates shark finning or fishing. Just last summer, the UK amended their previous Shark Finning Regulation into the Shark Fins Act, completely banning the import and export of detached shark fins, as well as all products containing shark fins. Other countries are starting to strengthen their regulations as well; the US reworked its finning ban into the Shark Conservation Act in 2011, Canada amended its Fisheries Act in 2019, and a successful citizen initiative is currently forcing the EU to consider extending its finning ban into a trade ban.  

However, while most of these legislations sound good at first, they actually fail to protect sharks from being hunted and killed properly. A new study published in Science this January assessed shark mortality around the globe and found that, despite the practice of shark finning being on the decline, shark mortality has been increasing throughout this decade which has been so successful in establishing new protective legislation. While new jurisdictions are being implemented in countries around the world, their particulars actually vary. Few prohibit shark fishing completely. Most just state fins should be naturally attached to the sharks that are being landed; others only dictate a fin-to-carcass ratio, and, in many countries, legislation is hazy and unspecific. In plain English, most of them focus on the removal of fins and forget to address that a shark can still be fished and killed with its fins attached. Many countries also fail to consider the overwhelming issue of bycatch. Even worse, these regulations might allow new markets to open up that focus on exploiting the whole of the shark carcass. All in all, established finning regulations have had almost no impact or, in some cases, even increased shark mortality. 

Only very few countries effectively protect their native shark species, completely banning shark fishing and the trade with shark products. Among them are many tropical nations that benefit from a booming diving business and patrons interested in living sharks. With the passing of the Shark Fins Act, the UK is far ahead of many other Western countries and could soon be followed by the EU. This is one of a few reasons to be hopeful for the future of sharks. For one, shark conservation outreach is in a much better place now than it was years ago, with the public image of sharks slowly but surely changing and more people becoming aware of the issues these animals, the ocean and the planet are facing. 

Secondly, and most importantly, while the global trend continues to look rather grim, there have been local improvements in shark mortality, which are evidently connected to legislation changes and conservation efforts and are owed largely to legislation’s best and most demanding friend: effective enforcement. The results of the study have shown that a complete ban of shark fishing, in combination with more democratic governance, actively decreases shark mortality. This shows us clearly what we need to do next and may provide a greater chance for success - if we learn from our mistakes.


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