Conservation Group Says Florida's Shark-Finning Law Has Loopholes

Conservationists say more needs to be done to protect endangered species of sharks.
Conservationists say more needs to be done to protect endangered species of sharks. Photo by David Clode/Unsplash
In January, federal wildlife officials seized a shipment of nearly 1,400 pounds of dried shark fins at PortMiami. The shipment, worth an estimated $700,000 to $1 million, originated in South America and was bound for Asia.

The bust drew renewed attention to Florida's status as a hub in the global shark-fin trade, and it renewed calls for a state ban on the import and export of shark fins.

Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law to curb shark finning, a grisly practice that involves slicing the fins off live sharks, then throwing the sharks back into the ocean and leaving them to drown or bleed to death.

The Kristin Jacobs Ocean Conservation Act — named after a member of the Florida House who died in April and made banning the shark-fin trade a legislative priority — prohibits the import, export, and sale of shark fins.

But Oceana, a marine conservation organization, says Florida's ban doesn't go far enough.

"The bill that Governor DeSantis just signed continues to allow Florida shark fishermen and Florida shark dealers to sell and export fins," Whitney Webber, Oceana's campaign director, said in an emailed statement this week. "We are disappointed that despite an overwhelming amount of support in the state for a complete ban on the sale and trade of shark fins, special interests carved out an exemption at the last minute that sunk the intent of the original bill."

The bill, which goes into effect October 1, still allows the export and sale of shark fins by commercial fishermen with valid federal shark-fishing permits and by wholesale dealers with valid federal Atlantic shark-dealer permits. It also permits the sale and export of "domestically sourced" shark fins by any shark-fin processor that obtains fins from a wholesale dealer with a federal Atlantic shark-dealer permit.

In its original form, the bill would have banned all imports, exports, and sales of shark fins. But the legislation was altered to appease Florida's shark anglers and concerned fishing businesses, WUSF reported in March.

In 2017, then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill prohibiting the possession of shark fins, with some exceptions, and laid out penalties and punishments for violations. Florida lawmakers and environmentalists wanted the 2017 bill to ban the sale and trade of fins and tails, but an amended version of the bill got rid of the language about sales.

Oceana estimates that as many as 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. The demand is driven by the popularity of shark-fin soup, a delicacy in some Asian cuisines. While the practice of finning is illegal in the United States, the trade of shark fins and tails is not.

According to Oceana, while state shark-fin bans are a step in the right direction, the patchwork of state laws is easy to exploit. The organization has called for a federal ban on the sale and trade of shark fins, although some scientists worry that an all-out ban would simply push the illegal trade underground.

In a Sun-Sentinel op-ed, Oceana CEO Andrew Sharpless noted that federal officials busted a transnational drug and shark-fin trafficking ring with ties to Florida and California earlier this month. According to an indictment, a California man used a Panama City business as a front to traffic more than 12,000 of pounds of shark fins through the Port of Savannah in Georgia and to Hong Kong.

"The best way to protect against shark fin smuggling and to ensure that the United States is no longer participating in the fin trade is to enact a federal trade ban," Sharpless wrote in the op-ed.

Last November, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019, which makes it illegal to buy or sell shark fins. The Senate is considering companion legislation.
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Alexi C. Cardona is a former staff writer at Miami New Times.