Shark Finning Faces Broader Sanctions

It’s a pretty gruesome practice. Net a shark, slice off its fins, then throw the bleeding, limbless fish back into the water. This is the source of the primary ingredient in shark-fin soup, a pricey staple of Chinese restaurants throughout Asia and parts of the West.

A tiny portion of the fins on board the King Diamond II when it was stopped at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard 2 years ago. U.S. Coast Guard
The King Diamond II, a U.S. fin-running vessel that has provoked a major court test of the federal shark-fin-protection statute. U.S. Coast Guard

The problem is not that people eat cartilage-rich shark fins, but that most of the crews harvesting those fins discard the rest of the huge animal—wasting its protein in a remarkably inhumane fashion. In the West, where the allure of shark fins is low, nearly everyone from shark conservationists to U.S. government officials has condemned the practice. Indeed, 2 years ago the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Commerce Department, formally banned shark finning throughout U.S. waters.

However, those rules applied only to fishing vessels flying under a U.S. flag while at sea. Foreign vessels continued to plunder sharks throughout the seas, including U.S. waters, with impunity.

At least in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, that situation may be about to end. On Nov. 23, 63 member nations of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)—an intergovernmental fishery organization that concerns itself with large fish in the open seas—unanimously agreed to ban shark finning in those two bodies of water.

The decision had been prodded by measures from several influential bodies. In May, for example, the American Elasmobranch Society, made up of biologists who study sharks and related species, passed a resolution urging an international ban on shark finning by the United Nations General Assembly at its fall meeting. And on Nov. 17, the General Assembly complied by “urging” member nations to ban “directed shark fisheries conducted solely for the purpose of harvesting shark fins . . . and to encourage the full use of dead sharks.”

King Diamond II case still unresolved

The new ICCAT ruling doesn’t affect shark finning beyond the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Indeed, plunder of sharks for their fins in Pacific waters continues at a brisk pace. Moreover, even where a legal ban exists, policing the rule remains challenging, as the U.S. government has been learning.

In August 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard boarded the King Diamond II, a suspicious U.S. vessel riding low in the water off the coast of Acapulco, Mexico. On board were 32 tons of stinking, disembodied shark fins. The fins were estimated to represent the destruction of some 30,000 sharks weighing around 1.3 million pounds (see No Way to Make Soup).

Once the Coast Guard had escorted the ship to San Diego, federal attorneys charged the ship’s crew and owners under the new shark-finning statute. The fins were initially put into storage as evidence of a crime, but because they would lose much of their value if maintained in storage, the federal government allowed the defendants to put up a $775,000 bond and take back the fins.

In May of last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that polices marine fisheries, levied on the King Diamond II the largest civil penalty ever imposed under the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, a fine totaling $620,000. It charged Tran and Yu Inc. of Hawaii, Tai Loong Hong Marine Products of Hong Kong, and the ship’s captain Chien Tan Nguyen with 26 counts of possessing shark fins on board a U.S. fishing vessel without the corresponding shark carcasses.

However, federal attorneys are still fighting to hold on to the bond, and they’ve yet to collect the fine.

The defendants decided to fight the charge that they were on a fishing vessel, according to a Dec. 6 report by Onell R. Soto in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Under the law, a container ship transporting fish harvested by others is immune from the law. The defendants are now arguing that they were merely a container ship. In fact, there was no fishing gear present when the Coast Guard boarded the boat.

However, the U.S. government is charging that the King Diamond II became part of the fishing enterprise by purchasing the fins at sea from bona fide fishing vessels. Indeed, the captured ship was taking those fins to wholesalers.

Within a week or so, a U.S. judge is expected to rule on the status of the King Diamond II. If the vessel is judged a fishing boat, the defendants will probably lose their appeal of the confiscation of the fins—and the bond they posted. This would also solidify the separate, primary federal case against the defendants: that they broke the law and must thus pay the large fine.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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