Still on the menu: Shark fin trade in U.S. persists despite ban

The trade in shark fins is still underway in the United States, despite legislation making such activities illegal, an investigative report has found. Environmentalists say this indicates that officials need to do more to enforce the laws already in place to stamp out illegal activities and protect sharks, which are globally threatened with extinction.

On Dec. 6, Al Jazeera English released a documentary about the illegal shark fin trade between South America and the United States, as part of its “Fault Lines” program. Led by senior correspondent Josh Rushing, the report begins in Chimbote, Peru, where environmental prosecutor Evelyn LaMadrid investigates a fin-drying operation at a local shop, where illegally sourced shark fins were being dried and prepared for sale. While shark finning is prohibited in Peru (meaning that sharks must be landed with their fins still attached), there are few other restrictions on the shark trade. For instance, Peru allows the export of shark fins, although the nation must comply with any restrictions established by CITES, the international convention on the wildlife trade.

During the investigation, LaMadrid and her team end up confiscating 180 kilograms (nearly 400 pounds) of dried shark fins from nine different species, including endangered whale sharks (Rhincodon typus). In 2018, LaMadrid also spearheaded an operation to arrest two people illegally trafficking 1,800 kg (nearly 4,000 lbs) of shark fins, which eventually led to the nation’s first conviction and jail sentence for this crime in 2022.

Sharks cast aside after being finned. Image by Sebastián Losada via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Sharks cast aside after being finned. Image by Sebastián Losada via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The report then moves to neighboring Ecuador, which, despite a national ban on shark fishing, is a known hotspot for the illegal shark fin trade — thanks to an exemption for when sharks are caught as bycatch. Conservation experts say this rule creates a loophole that has allowed the trade to thrive, with sharks being intentionally targeted and landed. In the city of Guayaquil, Rushing interviewed a shark fin smuggler who revealed that fins are often moved to Peru, where the export of shark fins remains legal. The smuggler also revealed another piece of information: shark fins are being sent directly to the United States, hidden in shipments of swordfish and other large fish.

This is happening despite the U.S. passing the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act in December 2022, which went into effect the following month. The rule makes it illegal to “possess, buy, sell, or transport shark fins or any product containing shark fins,” essentially creating an outright ban on the shark fin trade in the U.S. However, the law still allows people to possess legally obtained shark fins in some circumstances if they have a license or permit.

The Al Jazeera report provides proof that shark fins are being traded in the U.S. At a Chinese restaurant in New York City, Rushing and an undercover investigator manage to order two bowls of shark fin soup — a brothy, gelatinous soup presented with a cooked shark fin and a high price tag — which the restaurant sells “under the table.” One of the restaurant workers, while being filmed undercover, says the fins come from Venezuela. When the investigators send samples of the shark fin to a laboratory for testing, they’re able to confirm that the shark fin was authentic.

Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign director at the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Oceana, but who was not involved in the investigation, said he was surprised to see that the shark fin trade was still happening in the U.S. “at the scale that it seems to be from the Al Jazeera piece.”

“This shows that we need to move forward with more effective enforcement of the laws,” Brogan told Mongabay.

At the same time, Brogan said he was encouraged to know that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal regulatory agency, was working to enforce the law. Earlier this year, NOAA officials confiscated 645 kg (1,422 lbs) of dried shark fins, including from critically endangered scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), in Kentucky. However, Brogan said that ultimately more needs to be done to take the United States out of the global shark fin trade.

“We’ve seen this first case, but we’re hoping that that’s going to be one in a string so that we can finally get the U.S. out of the shark fin trade,” Brogan said.

A NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins. Image courtesy of NOAA.
A NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Luke Warwick, director of shark and ray conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was also not involved in the Al Jazeera investigation, said the U.S. shark fin law doesn’t make it clear whether the passage of fins through U.S. territory en route to its final destination is actually prohibited or if it actually remains legal.

“The issue of transshipment is likely most significant, as the U.S. wasn’t of high concern in terms of unsustainable shark catch itself, but has long acted as a major transshipment point for fins from sharks caught in poorly regulated fisheries in South and Central America,” Warwick told Mongabay in an email. “This is an issue that was raised as a serious concern before last year’s sales ban, and could well be continuing.”

Warwick added that he wasn’t surprised to see the sale of shark fin soup in New York since small quantities of processed fins can easily be concealed and moved around to places where the demand remains high. However, he noted that the shark trade bans imposed in November 2022 by CITES, the international convention on the wildlife trade — which experts say will account for 95% of the global fin trade — along with nations like the U.S. passing laws to prohibit the trade, should be making a bigger impact.

“[A]ny trade in shark fins should now be subject to far greater scrutiny from customs officials around the world,” Warwick said, “a step that can help clamp down on ongoing unsustainable catch and trade that supplies these markets, and threatens these ancient predators’ survival.”

Watch Al Jazeera’s documentary here:

This article by Elizabeth Claire Alberts was first published by on 27 December 2023. Lead Image: During the investigation, the team end up confiscating 180 kilograms (nearly 400 pounds) of dried shark fins from nine different species, including endangered whale sharks (Rhincodon typus). Image by Emilie Ledwidge / Ocean Image Bank.

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