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Landmark bill will ban the shark fin trade in the US

Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). Image by ErikvanB via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • On Dec. 15, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that will ban the shark fin trade within the nation.
  • It’s estimated that fins from as many as 73 million sharks annually end up in the global market, but it is difficult to fully grasp the size and severity of the shark fin industry since much of it is unregulated.
  • This forthcoming ban follows other measures to protect sharks, including the listing of many shark species on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and a ban on gear that is used to target sharks in the Pacific.

The United States Senate recently passed legislation that will ban the shark fin trade, a largely unregulated industry impacting millions of sharks, within the U.S.

On Dec. 15, policymakers approved the shark fin trade ban as part of an annual military defense bill, which also includes provisions to address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The bill is awaiting President Biden’s signature for the ban to be enacted.

Shark fins are mainly in demand for shark fin soup, a luxury dish popular in China, Hong Kong and many other places across Asia. While some shark fisheries harvest fins legally, many do not — it’s often the case that fishers will cut off the fins from sharks and throw the bodies back into the water while the sharks are still alive, a practice widely criticized for ecological and ethical reasons.

It’s estimated that fins from as many as 73 million sharks end up in the global market yearly.

Shark fin soup. Image by Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

“This is a monumental and long-awaited win for shark species and marine ecosystems across the globe,” Susan Millward, executive director of the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement. “These remarkable apex predators have existed for hundreds of millions of years, yet the global demand for shark fins has contributed to the decimation of shark populations in just a few decades.”

Before the Senate passed this legislation, 14 states and three U.S. territories had already banned the sale and possession of shark fins. The new bill will prohibit the fin trade across the entire U.S.

Experts believe the trade affects millions of sharks each year, but it is difficult to grasp the industry’s size and severity since much of it operates illegally. For instance, a recent Mongabay investigation found that just five longline vessels belonging to Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), said to be China’s largest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan, illegally harvested roughly 5.1 metric tons of dried shark fin in the western Pacific Ocean in 2019. According to the investigation, this translates to an estimated 843 metric tons of whole sharks, which is more than what China reported as the nation’s entire longline fleet catch in the same time and place.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control subsequently sanctioned DOF, citing many of Mongabay’s findings in its press release about the decision.

A recent study found that more than one-third of sharks, rays and chimaeras are now threatened with extinction, making them the second-most threatened vertebrate group, after amphibians.

Shark fins being dried on a Hong Kong street. Image by Oceans Asia.

With sharks facing such threats, policymakers are now taking new measures to combat the shark fin trade. In November, delegates of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, agreed to protect requiem sharks, hammerhead sharks and guitarfish on CITES Appendix II, a move expected to dampen the global fin trade.

Earlier this month, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission also banned gear such as shark lines and wire leaders that industrial-scale fishers use to target sharks in the Pacific.

“We are more than elated that ending the shark fin trade in the U.S. is on its way to becoming law,” Beth Lowell, Oceana’s vice president for the United States, said in a statement. “For too long, millions of sharks have been slaughtered for their fins, driving them toward extinction. This historic bill bans the buying and selling of shark fins in the United States, thereby removing our country from the global shark fin trade. We are grateful to all the hardworking House and Senate leaders for championing this bill and getting it over the finish line once and for all.”


Clarke, S. C., McAllister, M. K., Milner-Gulland, E. J., Kirkwood, G. P., Michielsens, C. G., Agnew, D. J., … Shivji, M. S. (2006). Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets. Ecology Letters, 9(10), 1115-1126. doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2006.00968.x

Dulvy, N. K., Pacoureau, N., Rigby, C. L., Pollom, R. A., Jabado, R. W., Ebert, D. A., … Simpfendorfer, C. A. (2021). Overfishing drives over one-third of all sharks and rays toward a global extinction crisis. Current Biology, 31(22), 5118-5119. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.08.062

Banner image caption: Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). Image by ErikvanB via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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