Sharks Should Be Respected, Not Feared

hammerhead shark in water
Scalloped hammerhead sharks are internationally protected. Photo by NOAA

Sharks have long gripped our fascination and swum in the ocean before dinosaurs roamed the earth. However, such factors as climate change, ocean pollution, overfishing and fin poaching now leave some species of sharks facing extinction in parts of the world.

Why do we need to protect sharks?

Some species of sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they do not populate quickly. Similar to humans, most shark species are long-lived, slow growing and take many years to reach sexual maturity. In addition, sharks give birth to few offspring at a time, have high juvenile mortality and infrequently reproduce.

As a commodity, there is a legal trade in shark products and the legal shark fishing industry provides an honest livelihood for many. Sharks are also vital to local economies through dive tourism, where humans enjoy observing and learning about these gentle giants underwater.

Why is there a shark population decline overseas?

Shark fins are dried and then sold to make shark fin soup, and a single bowl may sell for $100 USD. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy and is mainly served at special events, and can be found in restaurants around the world. The cartilaginous soup is made from ceratotrichia, a keratin-like substance. These long, thin filaments of protein are most prevalent in the dorsal, pectoral, and lower caudal fins; therefore, those fins are the most desirable and most often seen in the illegal trade.

think yellow soup on banquet table
think yellow soup on banquet table
A bowl of shark fin soup. Photo by Andrew Fung/Wikimedia Commons

International protections

What is the Service doing?

The Service’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) is committed to enforcing federal laws and international treaties that protect wildlife. Thanks to laws such as the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act, the OLE has seized approximately 35 tons of CITES-protected shark fins shipped illegally through the United States since 2016.

rows of seized fins
rows of seized fins
Working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Service has kept hundreds of illegal shark fins from reaching the shipment’s destination. Photo by USFWS

The Service partners with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other state and federal entities to tackle the unlawful shark trade. Interagency cooperation is essential to uncovering unpermitted, falsely labeled and concealed shipments.

CITES-protected shark fins have been found shipped illegally through air cargo, sea cargo, personal baggage and express freight. Through enhanced targeting, OLE’s wildlife inspectors and special agents have made large in-transit seizures across our country. Examples of shipments and shark species include:

· Seattle, Washington: 4 U.S. tons that contained great hammerhead and oceanic whitetip shark fins;

· Oakland, California: 27 U.S. tons that contained scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, oceanic whitetip and porbeagle shark fins;

· Memphis, Tennessee: 628 individual shark fins from species that included smooth hammerhead, great hammerhead and scalloped hammerhead fins;

· Anchorage, Alaska: 1,191 pounds that contained great hammerhead shark fins;

· Louisville, Kentucky: 110 pounds that contained silky shark and oceanic whitetip shark fins; and

· Miami, Florida: 1,394 pounds that contained great hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, and silky shark fins.

In response to the increase of wildlife trafficking activity, OLE initiated an interdiction team that that is composed of senior wildlife inspectors whose focus is to combat wildlife trafficking by exposing criminal pathways, generate intelligence on wildlife trafficking and coordinate national inspection efforts. The Wildlife Inspection Interdiction Team is designed to be efficient, cohesive, flexible, effective, and results driven. A recent success was Operation Hidden Mitten.

“Not on our watch,” said Regional Supervisor Wildlife Inspector Eva Lara. “The OLE is focused and committed to interdict illegal shark fins from transiting through the United States. Across our nation, our wildlife inspectors are trained professionals who know what wildlife species is legal or illegal. We all work hard to conserve wildlife species that are endangered and disrupt the black-market trade.”

Conservation celebrations such as “Shark Week” provide the learning foundation to discover reasons to love sharks and not fear them. They are incredibly important to the health of our planet and the Service and our partners will continue in its efforts to ensure sharks remain on the planet so future generations may benefit from them.

For more information, please go to https://www.fws.gov/le/stories.html

For information on how CITES works: https://www.fws.gov/international/cites/how-cites-works.html and CITES-related protections for sharks and rays: https://www.fws.gov/international/permits/by-species/sharks-and-rays.html

By John Goldman, Wildlife Inspector, Office of Law Enforcement

We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

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