Hawaii becomes the first state to ban shark fishing entirely

Environment | Oceans

By Laura Butula, Kingfisher Writer

Published February 28th, 2022

Sharks have ruled and sustained the oceans for millions of years, but their existence is threatened due to immoral practices such as shark finning. Hawaii has recently become the first state in the United States to ban shark finning, and a European Citizens’ Initiative wants to implement new laws to protect sharks, but will movements like these prove effective?

In the year 2000, former U.S President Bill Clinton signed and passed The Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 to stop shark finning across the United States. However, some exceptions to this legislation persisted, including the licensed commercial fishing of dog sharks (Mustelus canis). To tackle such loopholes, the U.S Senate introduced the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act in 2021. Since then, shark fins cannot be bought, sold, or transported in the United States.

Sharks swimming in the oceans of Hawaii. | Kimberly Jeffries / Image Ocean Bank

It now seems that these finning bans have inspired other states to implement fishing bans on their own accord. For example, Hawaii passed Act 51 (House Bill 553) on January 1st 2022 and became the first state to completely ban shark fishing. The new measure will now contribute to protecting the 40 shark species circling Hawaiian waters.

The Hawaiian government and its citizens recognize that sharks are extremely important predators that keep ecosystems in balance by regulating populations of marine life and maintaining the health of coral reefs and fish stocks. Moreover, some sharks are so well-known by locals that they have been given names; one of the most popular is Laverne, a tiger shark that inhabits Honokohau Harbour.

‘Since then [2021], shark fins cannot be bought, sold, or transported in the United States.’

Fitting to this admiration and recognition of sharks, the explicit and written purpose of the new Act is ‘to protect sharks [Manō in Hawaiian] for their ecological value while not criminalising the accidental capture and release of sharks that may be captured while fishing for other species as allowed by statute or rule’.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) in Hawaii still has plenty of work to accomplish to fully implement the new law, but is currently looking to prevent the Wanton waste of sharks and limit the use of fishing gear in shark nursery habitats.

Regardless of this progress, there are, as usual, several special cases to which the law does not apply: (i) people with DLNR-issued permits, (ii) public safety or self-defense cases authorised by DLNR, and (iii) cases where sharks are outside of Hawaiian waters and the individual possesses the appropriate documentation.

Any violator of this newly enacted Hawaiian law (Act 51) would be fined up to $10,000 for the capture, entanglement, or killing of any shark species. Any vessels or equipment used for shark fishing in state marine waters could also result in additional charges.

‘Any violator of this newly enacted Hawaiian law ( Act 51) would be fined up to $10,000 for the capture, entanglement, or killing of any shark species.’

Fortunately, a study from 2020 conducted in Hawaii demonstrated that fishermen have generally tried to avoid sharks even before Act 51 was implemented. One fisherman simply states that ‘...every fisherman will tell you the same thing: least amount of interaction [with sharks] as possible. If there’s no reason to, there’s no reason to.’

Interestingly, the Hawaiian government decided to ban shark fishing not only for environmental and commercial reasons, but also for cultural ones. Sharks happen to represent a common spiritual guardian to many locals一the term used to describe this belief is ‘aumakua’.

Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa with his shark tattoo that represents his family aumakua, a belief shared with locals that sharks are a common spiritual guardian. | Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Altogether, Act 51 represents the environmental, commercial and cultural value of sharks, as well as the corresponding reasons that these magnificent animals should be protected. Since the Act is so recent, only time will tell how effective it will prove; it is important to remember that a law is only as impactful as its resources and reinforcements.

On the other side of the world, protests against shark finning have echoed throughout the continent of Europe. Long-standing campaigns by EU citizens have often made international headlines, raising awareness to ‘Stop Finning - Stop The Trade’.

This specific European Citizens’ Initiative aims to extend Regulation (EU) No 605/2013 to the trade of shark fins. It also requests the European Commission to develop a new law where shark ‘fins naturally attached’ is applied to the export, import and transit of sharks and rays in the EU.

‘This specific European Citizens’ Initiative aims to extend Regulation (EU) No 605/2013 to the trade of shark fins.’

The petition started back in 2020, but has been collecting signatures up until January 31st, 2022. It accumulated 1,202,122 votes from an expected 1,000,000 and therefore proved significant enough to be discussed by the European Commission. Signatories included citizens from France, Hungary, Germany, Croatia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and more.

A bus poster raising awareness about shark finning. | Frank Hebbert / Flickr

Although the end of the campaign did not result in immediate decision-making or declarations from the European Commission, the petition is now displayed on the official website of the European Union where its details can be publicly viewed.

EU citizens can now hope that their protests will result in change. On a positive note, European Citizens’ Initiatives are rarely refused and ignored, with the European Commission only rejecting six petitions out of the 71 registered in the last five years. Moreover, considering that the appeal is both realistic and achievable, there is a relatively high level of confidence that shark finning and trade will be controlled or banned in Europe.

Upon reading about these shark fishing and finning bans, you may be wondering why sharks are threatened and targeted in the first place. Here is one simple question: would you ever try shark fin soup if you have not already? If the answer is yes, you would be joining millions of others across the world in the consumption of a falsely claimed nutritious broth that sells for $100 per bowl.

The soup-covered fins, which are gelatinous and chewy, are prized mainly as a status symbol in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Altogether, this has made shark fin soup the catalyst of a multi-billion-dollar industry that ruthlessly kills an estimated 100 million sharks annually. It is currently estimated that humans slaughter three sharks per second.

‘Altogether, this has made shark fin soup the catalyst of a multi-billion-dollar industry that ruthlessly kills an estimated 100 million sharks annually.’

The most common finning victims are whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus), oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus), scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), smooth hammerheads (Sphyrna zygaena), great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran) and silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis).

A bowl of shark fin soup. Many people around the world consume shark fin soup due to a false claim that its broth has some nutritional value. | cephalopodcast / Flickr

Human fisheries have triggered a steep 70% decline of shark populations globally, even though sharks are apex predators that have ruled the oceans since before the time of the dinosaurs. A 2014 analysis from the IUCN concluded that roughly 16% of shark species are classified as threatened, although this number is likely larger today. Even endangered species, such as the hammerhead shark, are targets for an immoral earning off of fin soup.

The process of shark finning is indisputably unethical; sharks are fished out and kept alive whilst their fins are mercilessly cut off. Their body is then thrown back into blood-filled waters where they either starve, sink to the ocean floor due to an absence of mobility, or get eaten by other fish.

Apart from decreasing populations, shark finning causes other environmental consequences. Notably, sharks are keystone species that keep ecosystems in balance一something that the Hawaiian government has acknowledged and addressed with Act 51.

Declines of shark populations initiate the overpopulation of other predators that consume herbivorous species; thus, underwater flora and macro-algae have the potential to outcompete coral reefs. Indeed, fewer sharks lead to damaged corals and seagrass beds.

Sharks are also K-selected species, which are characterised by slow growth rates, late maturation, and reproduction of a few young, known as pups. Therefore, extensive harm to sharks can activate large disturbances in marine food webs.

Two shark pups by the beach at Angsana Velavaru, Maldives. | Timo Netwon-Syms / Flickr

Reassuringly, a study published in Biological Letters utilised DNA sampling methods and habitat modelling to confirm that many sharks seized for their fins are caught in the territorial waters of just a few nations, namely Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Australia and Brazil. This conclusion highlights the fact that coastal fisheries in these areas can be more easily controlled than those in global waters.

International collaboration and knowledge exchange are undoubtedly needed to stop the horrific practice of shark finning. Informing public audiences about this act of animal cruelty is also a step in the right direction, as proven by the recent EU citizens' campaign against shark finning.

‘Notably, sharks are keystone species that keep ecosystems in balance.’

Although it may not be at the pace that shark conservationists, scientists and enthusiasts may want, progress to prevent shark finning and fishing is finally being made. Now is the time to wonder how humans can play an active role in safeguarding sharks from future anthropogenic dangers.

Featured Image: Nicholas Wang | Flickr

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