Sharks are among the most endangered marine animals, and fishing for their fins is a leading driver of global shark declines. The U.S. addressed this crucial biodiversity conservation issue with the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 and the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, which ended the practice of finning (catching sharks, cutting their fins, and discarding their bodies) in U.S. waters and fleets.

However, the U.S. still imports shark fins from countries that continue to allow the practice. Congress has been discussing proposed legislation to ban the trade of shark fins for more than two years. The Shark Fin Sale Elimination Act, introduced in 2019, is intended to fully extricate the U.S. from the global shark fin market.

In a new paper published in Conservation Letters, Francesco Ferretti, assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, and his co-authors contribute to the debate by pointing out that the U.S. has a limited commercial interest in shark fisheries and contributes to the shark fin trade mainly as a facilitator. As such, banning the U.S. fin trade would have few tangible economic drawbacks but a considerable conservation impact.

According to Ferretti, “Making all shark fisheries sustainable is the ultimate goal, but this objective is far from achievable in practice as sustainable shark fisheries are very rare. Of the hundreds of shark fisheries across the globe, only 16 are recognized as sustainable. Twelve of those are in the U.S., but they represent only 17% of the 71 shark stocks under U.S. management.”

The Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation researcher indicated that while efforts should be taken toward sustainable shark fishing overall, banning the shark fin trade is an interim measure that can be taken at negligible cost and can truly impact the biggest driver of shark exploitation globally.

“It is now time to take a more pragmatic approach to shark conservation. Making all shark fisheries sustainable in the U.S. is laudable but unlikely to happen soon. After decades of management work, economic and legislative effort, the leading nation in shark management and conservation has been able to certify only 17% of its exploited shark stocks as sustainably fished. Yet banning the shark fin trade is virtually a no-cost approach that the U.S. (and other developed countries) can take to end their active participation in the largest global threat to shark populations.”

“Sharks are a crucial component of ecosystems,” stated Ferretti. “Declines of these animals have been linked to changes in ecosystem structure and function, the collapse of commercial fisheries, and declines in the stability of marine communities. However, we are also still discovering the full consequences of shark population declines—and this is particularly relevant for discussions about sustainable shark fisheries. We still do not know the total impact on ocean ecosystems if shark populations are reduced, even if the reductions are sustainably managed according to conventional approaches.”

About Francesco Ferretti

Ferretti’s research interests focus on characterizing the history of human impact in the ocean, understanding how this impact has altered marine ecosystems, and developing solutions for a sustainable use of marine resources. His projects range from macro-ecology to applied management and conservation.

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To secure an interview with Ferretti, contact Shannon Andrea at sandrea@vt.edu or 571-858-3252.

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