The United States places a high priority on achieving effective conservation and management of sharks. Their life history characteristics make most sharks particularly susceptible to overexploitation. Because many sharks are apex predators and can be vital to the health of the ecosystems in which they occur, their conservation and management represents an integral part of ecosystem-based fisheries management.
Sharks are currently taken in directed fisheries and as bycatch. In the North Atlantic, for instance, directed tuna and swordfish fisheries result in the bycatch of blue sharks. In the central Pacific, purse seine fisheries that set on floating objects and fish aggregating devices can also take a large number of sharks.
The practice of shark finning occurs due to the high price that shark fins command in certain markets, where they are used in shark fin soup. Shark finning is particularly wasteful because other parts of the shark are not retained or used. Moreover, the retention of only shark fins on board while discarding the carcasses at sea allows vessels to have an enormous impact relative to their carrying capacity.
The Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 made it unlawful for any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction to engage in shark finning and created a rebuttable presumption that any shark fins landed from a fishing vessel or found on board a fishing vessel were the result of finning if the total weight of shark fins landed or found on board exceeds 5 percent of the total weight of shark carcasses landed or found on board. The Act also called up the Executive Branch to pursue comparable measures at the international level.
The United States, through the Department of State and the National Marine Fisheries Service, has spearheaded a series of agreed shark finning prohibitions in RFMOs. The first such success took place in the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which adopted a 2004 resolution to ban shark finning. Many other RFMOs followed with similar measures, including the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO). Another RFMO, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), has not adopted a ban on finning but a broader ban on all directed commercial shark fisheries pending scientific review of the impacts of such fishing on shark populations in that area.
At the international level, the United States is pursuing efforts to strengthen compliance with these agreed bans on shark finning.
The 2007 UN General Assembly Resolution (62/177) includes a United States proposal that provides a broad mandate for stronger conservation of sharks. The final resolution, adopted by consensus:
- calls upon States, including through RFMOs, to urgently adopt measures to fully implement the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks for directed and non-directed shark fisheries, based on the best available scientific information, through, inter alia, limits on catch or fishing effort, by requiring that vessels flying their flag collect and regularly report data on shark catches, including species-specific data, discards and landings, undertaking, including through international cooperation, comprehensive stock assessments of sharks, reducing shark by-catch and by-catch mortality, and, where scientific information is uncertain or inadequate, not increasing fishing effort in directed shark fisheries until measures have been established to ensure the long-term conservation, management and sustainable use of shark stocks and to prevent further declines of vulnerable or threatened shark stocks;
- calls upon States to take immediate and concerted action to improve the implementation of and compliance with existing RFMO and national measures that regulate shark fisheries, in particular those measures which prohibit or restrict fisheries conducted solely for the purpose of harvesting shark fins, and, where necessary, to consider taking other measures, as appropriate, such as requiring that all sharks be landed with each fin naturally attached; and
- requests the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to prepare a report containing a comprehensive analysis of the implementation of the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks as well as progress in implementing the present resolution, for presentation to the Committee on Fisheries at its twenty-eighth session, in 2009.
The United States is working through the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, a unique global partnership dedicated to ending the illegal trade in wildlife, to raise awareness of the importance of shark conservation and to improve enforcement capacity. Many of the Coalition funded enforcement capacity building workshops include segments devoted to better identification of protected species, including sharks, and better investigative methods and methods of collecting and protecting evidence to ensure prosecution.
The United States is promoting shark conservation in through Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). With U.S. support, whale sharks, great white sharks and basking sharks have been have been listed in Appendix II of CITES as species that may become threatened with extinction unless trade is regulated. The United States also successfully proposed several species of critically endangered sawfish for listing on Appendix I of CITES, which effectively bans all trade in sawfish parts and fins.
The Department of State and the National Marine Fisheries Service are working through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to promote regional cooperation and fund science capacity building to improve the conservation and management of shared shark populations in that region. Harmonizing conservation and management practices on a regional scale is essential to ensuring long-term sustainable shark fisheries.
The United States is participating in an international effort to elaborate a regime for international cooperation on migratory sharks convened by the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), which will address a broad suite of issues relating to shark conservation and management, including both fisheries and non-fisheries issues, and would provide for cooperation and immediate engagement with the FAO, RFMOs, and the fishing industry.
Prohibitions on shark finning are just one component of a broad suite of measures that will be necessary to achieve the long-term sustainability of shark populations. The United States continues to work with other countries and in regional fora to collect basic data in order to assess the status of shark stocks, as well as data on shark catches on a species-specific basis, and the trade in shark fins and other products. Working with our international partners, the United States will develop, implement and enforce a range of fisheries conservation and management measures for sharks.