Flap over shark fins won’t be going away any time soon
US Senator Corey Booker may have joined the fray in the 2016 presidential arena Monday night with a barnburner speech, but he could be in for an even bigger fight on a different front.
American fishermen are gearing up to challenge a bill Booker and others have put before the Senate Commerce Committee that would shut down the last vestiges of the harvest of shark fins, an ingredient of soup and medicine prized in Asia.
The traditional method of “finning” sharks is a gruesome business. Sharks are pulled from the water, their dorsal and pectoral fins hacked off while they’re still alive and they’re thrown back in the water, where, unable to swim, they drown.
Finning has been illegal in the US for years, but there is a loophole in the ban: Fishermen can still catch sharks and remove their fins while processing the entire fish on land.
The new law would be an outright ban on possession or sale of shark fins under any circumstances.
“America can become a global leader by shutting down the domestic market for shark fins,” Booker told The Associated Press.
Fins from as many as 70 million sharks end up in the global market each year, the New Jersey Democrat said, and completely removing the US from the trade would tell the world that it needs to stop.
There are more than 400 permitted shark fishermen in the US, from Maine to Texas, most in Florida and Louisiana. In 2014 they brought more than 600 metric tons of sharks to land, where they are processed for their meat, as well as their fins.
The new bill would allow fishermen to keep harvesting sharks for their meat, but not their fins, a measure many in the business call wrongheaded. Most of the value in the business is the fins, not the meat. A lawyer for the shark fishermen said not being able to sell the fins would be devastating.
“Other countries that are less likely to be as sustainable as us will fill our void,” said Jeff Oden, a former shark fisherman from North Carolina who said the legislation was wellintentioned but could actually increase pressure on sharks.
According to Booker’s office, the US shark fishery was worth about $2.5 million in 2014, a small fraction in a worldwide trade estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.
Earlier this month, a confiscated haul aboard a COSCO ship arriving in Hong Kong (the capital of the world’s shark fin trade) from Panama gave an idea of the breadth of that trade — 1,940 pounds of fins from endangered hammerhead sharks with an estimated value of $100,000.
The largest seizure came back in 2014 — 2,162 pounds of fins on a vessel arriving from Colombia.
After the recent seizure, WildAid’s Alex Hofford wrote to COSCO urging the company to “follow its industry competitors by acting legally, ethically and morally” and ban the transport of shark fin.
Within a week, COSCO, China’s largest shipping and logistics firm, said it would impose a ban on shark fin transport, but did not give a time frame.
When COSCO gets on board, 68 percent of the world’s shipping will be committed to stopping the transport of shark fins, although some, such as Taiwan’s Evergreen Line, still ship fins from sharks that are not endangered.
Only about half the world’s shark fin trade moves through Hong Kong but it is upwards of 6,000 metric tons.
American fishermen are allowed to harvest several different species, including tiger sharks, bull sharks and some hammerheads. Conservationist group Shark Savers said that 14 kinds of shark most prevalent in the international fin trade are threatened or nearly threatened with extinction.
Eleven states in the US have laws banning the sale of shark fins, although shark fin soup can still be found on many Chinese restaurant menus.
Corey Lee, a former chef at The French Laundry — a Michelin three-star restaurant in Napa Valley — told the New Yorker magazine that he wanted to challenge himself by creating a faux shark-fin soup.
Chicken and ham bouillon, aromatics, Shaoxing wine, hydrocolloid gums for “jellyfish” texture all went into the brew that completely fooled Cecelia Chiang, “the revered chef and restaurateur who is credited with introducing Northern Chinese cooking to America.” She had no idea it was faux, Lee said.