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December 02, 2016
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Banning shark fins in Pennsylvania

Fresh shark fins drying on sidewalk in Hong Kong.
Contributed photo by Nicholas Wang

In estimating the number of sharks taken each year, Clarke wrote, “There were inevitably many unknowns in the formula, and being a scientist, I did my best to bracket these with high and low estimates and to carry through these unknowns as a range. My conclusion was that as of 2000, the fins of 38 million sharks per year were being traded through the fin markets, but that the number could range as low as 26 million or as high as 73 million.”

Regardless of the number of sharks that are killed for their fins each year, it’s clear that many species are declining. An organization called the International Union for the Conservation of Nature maintains a Red List of Threatened Species, and about 300 different sharks are listed. In describing the population trends of the various species, many are described as unknown or decreasing, but only a handful are described as having a stable population.

For some species the decline is dramatic. According to the Red List, the oceanic white tip shark, which is large and used to be abundant over most of the oceans of the world, is “subject to fishing pressure virtually throughout its range… Its large fins are highly prized in international trade although the carcass is often discarded.” Declines of the populations of the shark in the Gulf of Mexico and portions of the Atlantic Ocean were estimated at over 90% from the 1950s through the late 1990s.

While there are various pressures on shark populations, finning is a brutal and visible one that can be diminished through legislation, and such legislation is spreading. (While there is a federal law, which bans finning, there is no federal law banning the possession and sale of fins.) California, which had been the second-largest market for shark fins outside of China, passed a law in September 2011 that banned the sale, trade and possession of shark fins.

Following the lead of California, other states such as New York and Delaware also passed legislation banning the sale and possession of shark fins, bringing the total to eight states and three U.S. territories that have adopted such bans.

In September 2014, the countries and other parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will no longer be able to take some species of shark unless they have a CITES permit demonstrating that the sharks have been harvested sustainably and legally. The protected sharks will include the oceanic white tip, scalloped hammerhead shark and porbeagle shark.