By Merry Camhi
It may have happened to you. You’re out for a sail and you spot a fin in the water. Someone begins his best impression of the familiar pulsating cello line as another person jokes, “We gotta get a bigger boat,” and talk turns to the film whose release one weekend 38 years ago forever changed our nation’s relationship to sharks.
Now, after studying sharks and their conservation for more than two decades, I assert that these fascinating predators suffer from an identity crisis: Sharks are greatly maligned for their fierce reputation yet, in reality, are among the most vulnerable animals on the planet. Nearly four decades after the release of Jaws, it remains difficult to convince the average beach-goer and even some of my friends and relatives that sharks in fact have much more to fear from us than we do from them.
Yet it is true. Overfishing of sharks and their close relatives skates and rays across the globe has in recent decades led to sharp declines in shark numbers. Some species have been reduced by more than 80 percent. Much of that reduction is tied to the international trade in shark fins. The fins of as many as 70 million sharks end up in the coveted Asian delicacy shark fin soup each year. At the same time, some of the most heavily fished sharks and closely related skates and rays are prized primarily for their meat.
Widespread condemnation of the wasteful practice of shark finning, whereby fins are sliced from the shark and its carcass is thrown overboard, has made it illegal in U.S. waters. But the U.S. Atlantic states have taken a big step backwards by changing the finning rules for just one species, the smooth dogfish (aka smoothhound shark) and this loophole, which risks finning of not only smooth dogfish but many other coastal shark species, may soon be extended beyond state waters.
The smooth dogfish is a coastal shark, roughly 4 feet long, that resides in nearshore waters from Massachusetts to Florida. Females reach maturity at 4-5 years – relatively early for sharks – and give birth to 4-20 pups after a ten-eleven month pregnancy.
Coast-wide landings of this shark species, primarily for meat and fin export markets, have quadrupled since 1996, and yet the smooth dogfish fishery remains the only one in the Atlantic to go unmanaged. As a result, this species claims the unique distinction among East Coast sharks of having neither coast-wide catch limits nor a population assessment to determine if it is being fished sustainably. To make matters worse, this species is the subject of current and future loopholes in shark-finning regulations.
Under the U.S. Shark Conservation Act of 2010, all other shark species caught in U.S. waters must be brought to port with their fins still naturally attached to their bodies. However, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted last month to allow commercial fishers to remove smooth dogfish fins at sea and abide instead by a problematic and exceptionally lenient 12 percent fin-to-carcass weight ratio. That is, the weight of the fins can be as much as 12 percent of the weight of the carcasses landed at the same time.
As groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Shark Advocates International (SAI) have argued, the adoption of a 12 percent fin-to-carcass ratio —which would be the highest in the world—could result in the undetected finning of smooth dogfish and other coastal shark species with similar looking fins. There is now widespread agreement that “fins attached” is the best way to enforce shark finning bans. This method can also improve our understanding of shark fisheries by allowing for better species-specific catch data.
The U.S. has been leading the world in pushing for fins-attached standards. Most of Central and South America and the European Union have now also adopted bans on removing shark fins at sea. The 12 percent fin-to-carcass ratio sets a terrible precedent. If we start making exceptions for U.S. fisheries, why shouldn’t other countries do the same?
Because smooth dogfish grow faster and produce more young than many other sharks, they offer the potential for sustainable exploitation, but only if the fishery is managed carefully with scientifically based and enforced catch quotas, and with fins-attached regulations to prevent finning and enhance species-specific management.
So when you hear friends and family trot out the inevitable Jaws-inspired references to great whites this summer, remember that dogfish are sharks, too. Given the continuing demand for shark fin products and the severely depleted status of so many shark species around the world, this is no time to allow exceptions to U.S. shark finning laws.
Dr. Merry Camhi directs the New York Seascape program at the Wildlife Conservation Society‘s New York Aquarium and has been working towards the conservation of sharks, skates and rays for over two decades.