DOVER — Shark conservators are looking to take a bite out of the shark finning global market.
Scientists have estimated that up to 70 million sharks a year are harvested. Hetti Brown, Delaware state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said that figure is unsustainable.
“The shark finning industry is highly unregulated globally,” Ms. Brown said.
Shark finning, the process of de-finning a shark and tossing the still-live body back into the water, is prevalent in the Far East due to the popularity of shark fin soup. The soup is a delicacy among the elite, especially in China.
In practice, shark finning is prohibited in U.S. waters thanks to a federal conservation act that was passed in 2010, but the Humane Society of the United States has been canvassing to pass shark finning regulations on the state level.
At the end of the 146th Legislative Session in 2012, Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow and Sen. Robert Venables, D-Laurel, sponsored a bill that prohibited the possession, sale, offer for sale and distribution of shark fins in the state. While the bill passed unanimously in the state House of Representatives, it did not make it on the state Senate’s agenda in the final days of the session. In April Rep. Jaques re-introduced House Bill 41 and this time around the legislation made it to the governor’s office.
“As long as Delaware contributed to the market by being a marketplace for shark fins themselves for other companies we were contributing to the global shark finning industry,” Ms. Brown said.
Gov, Jack A. Markell signed the bill into law May 15.
Catch of the day
While the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife is committed to shark conservation, Dave Saveikis, director of the division, said the agency wanted to ensure the legislation did not hinder fishermen licensed to harvest shark commercially or recreationally.
“Everybody was opposed to the barbaric practice but we did not want to have our fishermen unduly constrained,” Mr. Saveikis said. “They weren’t doing anything illegal.”
HB 41 included a provision to allow commercial fishermen to continue the current practices of possessing and distributing shark fins of legally landed species, while still prohibiting the practice of shark finning.
The Delaware code for tidal finfish offers guidance for legal practices. For instance, the language states it is illegal for recreational or commercial fisherman to possess silky, tiger, blacktip, spinner, bull, lemon, nurse, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead and smooth hammerhead sharks from May 15 through July 15, regardless of where the shark was caught.
The code gives the division under the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the ability to add or delete shark species to the harvest list based on changing population abundance.
The sand tiger and sandbar sharks can be caught in Delaware, but Mr. Savekis said 99 percent of the sharks landed, or brought to shore, are spiny dogfish and smooth dogfish. They are found frequently in shallow waters around wintertime or offshore in deeper water during the summer.
To catch any of the federally managed species, Stewart Michels, fisheries program manager with the Division of Fish and Wildlife, said commercial fishermen must apply for a gill net license as well as a hook and line license, as those are the only legal methods to fish for sharks. There are also a handful of additional permits shark fishermen can apply for such as the commercial food fishing license and the sandbar shark research permit.
Once caught, fishermen can eviscerate the shark immediately — cut off its head — or simply bring them to shore. The fins cannot be cut until the shark reaches the shoreline, Mr. Michels said.
The spiny dogfish sharks that are landed in Delaware are transferred to Ocean City, Md., and shipped up to Massachusetts for processing.
The amount of shark pounds landed varies from year to year due to the availability of the stock, market fluctuations, impacts of regulations and the like, Mr. Michels said. For those reasons, the state’s commercial fishermen usually possess multiple licenses that allow them to be adaptable and put their effort where they can get the most value. In 2010, for instance, commercial fishermen landed 17,352 pounds of smooth dogfish and 7,515 pounds of spiny dogfish. But in 2012, only 203 pounds of smooth dogfish were harvested compared to 12,654 pounds of spiny dogfish.
Though the practice of shark harvesting is legal, the state does not have a large shark fishery. Only 120 commercial fishermen have gill net licenses.
“It’s a mile wide and a millimeter deep,” joked Mr. Michels.
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