Environment

Miami now nation’s top importer of shark fins. Many states have banned the product.

Chasing sharks toward extinction

Commercial fleets roam the world's oceans, fishing sharks to near extinction.
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Commercial fleets roam the world's oceans, fishing sharks to near extinction.

Miami’s position as a global hub in the import-export industry, and port of entry for all things nefarious from dirty gold to smuggled songbirds, has made it a leader in yet another dubious trade: shark fins.

Since 2015, Miami has led the nation in the number of shark fins imported from Hong Kong, likely caused by an increasing number of import bans in other states. According to a review by the nonprofit Oceana, the number of fins arriving at PortMiami from Hong Kong, the historic center of the fin trade, was dwindling between 2010 and 2014. But after California and New York banned imports in 2011 and 2013, fin shipments began rising.

“We’ve seen a kind of a whack-a-mole situation,” said Oceana marine scientist Mariah Pfleger. “When one place gets blocked off, they move to another state and the trade shifts around.”

Twelve states, not including Florida, currently ban imports.

Oceana is now pushing for a federal ban on shark fins, arguing that the U.S., which imports only a small fraction of the world’s fins, should lead by example in a global trade rife with brutal butcherings and blamed for killing 73 million sharks annually.

shark fin on clothes line.jpg

Although the practice of slicing shark fins off at sea — called shark finning — is outlawed in the U.S., shark fins can still be legally harvested from sharks brought onshore or imported from countries without finning bans. It’s also likely that lax regulations in Malaysia and Hong Kong, which import more than 350 times as many fins as the U.S., mean fins from endangered sharks are winding up in American markets.

“If we hold our fisheries to very stringent regulations but we still allow imports from countries that don’t have very stringent or environmentally conscious fishing regulations, then we’re protecting our environment but exploiting other environments,” said Neil Hammerschlag, a shark expert at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“The bottom line is too many species are being removed,” he said.

Two proposed laws now winding through Congress would tighten restrictions, with one bipartisan measure, sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif. banning fins altogether. A second bill drafted by Florida Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Daniel Webster, would let U.S. shark fishermen continue harvesting fins, but allow imports only from countries that share the U.S.’s tighter rules.

The fin trade remains the biggest fishing threat to sharks, Hammerschlag said, and the driving force behind shark fishing.

“You couldn’t make a business on shark meat without the fins,” he said. “The lucrative part is the fins.”

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The fin market originated centuries ago in Asia, where shark fin soup was created for Chinese aristocracy. The dish nearly disappeared with the rise in communism, but rebounded with a boom in the wealthy class, becoming a staple at wedding banquets. Campaigns by conservationists have helped remove it from menus — Chinese couples now boast of shark-free receptions — but fins continue to be used in traditional medicine and viewed as a sign of privilege in other Asian countries.

Few Florida restaurants offer shark fin soup on their menus, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, although Hammerschlag suspects some high-end restaurants provide it if requested.

Telling legal fins from illegal fins can also be tricky. According to a 2017 Florida International University study that examined 4,800 fins purchased at the busy Hong Kong market between 2014 and 2015, nearly a third came from protected sharks facing extinction.

And a practice called finning, the more grisly side of the industry, remains difficult to police. To make room on cramped boats, fisherman hack off fins and toss carcasses overboard, often while the sharks are still alive. The U.S and about 30 other countries ban finning in part or altogether. But some Asian countries still allow it and international waters remain unregulated.

Enforcement also remains a problem.

In March 2017, Florida wildlife officers stopped a shrimper 20 miles north of Key West and discovered dozens of dismembered fins on his boat. More than a year later, the case remains open with no charges filed, a spokeswoman for the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week.

Banning all imports in the U.S. would lead by example, Pfleger said, but Rubio spokeswoman Arielle Mueller said it also punishes U.S. shark fishermen abiding by regulations.

Rubio would not support the ban, she said in an email, “because as a Floridian, he understands how intimately our economy and natural resources are interconnected.”

The certification proposal, however, may be too difficult and costly to enforce, NOAA officials said. During a hearing last month before the House Committee on Natural Resources, NOAA’s director of sustainable fisheries said it may set rules beyond the agency’s jurisdiction and require NOAA to investigate and certify every country seeking to export any product containing fins, and not just the fins themselves.

“Our concern is the broad scope of products we would have to trace and the complexity of doing so,” Alan Risenhoover said.

It also fails to address the difficulty in tracing fins.

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Fl-wandering-hammerhead.. A hammerhead shark makes it way through the water off the South Florida Coast. Photo courtesy Neil Hammerschlag Courtesy Neil Hammerschlag

“Everyone agrees you can’t tell the ones sustainably caught from the ones horrifically finned,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat. “You can’t unscramble the egg.”

While both bills may have problems — Hammerschlag worries an all-out ban will lead to an uptick in sales from unregulated sources —he said either is a start.

“I don’t support shark finning, the trade and sale of shark fins because personally I find it’s difficult to enforce, to regulate and to identify species,” he said. “But every step is a step in the right direction.”

Scientists made a rare discovery -- a shark egg case with a baby shark still inside -- while NOAA's Inner Space Center was live streaming from the Okeanos Explorer on November 15, 2018. The find happened off an uninhabited island near Puerto Rico.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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