Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The practice of shark finning

Last week, Andrew Sharpless wrote a Gristmill post about legislation before the US Congress that will tighten the restriction on selling shark fins. I was initially reluctant to comment, as the legislation is outside my area of expertise. But, as someone that has spent a lot of time in boats with indigenous fishermn in the tropics, I can say with confidence that we should support any effort to stop the practice of shark 'finning'. And not only for the obvious reason - the effect on shark populations and marine ecosystems - but because, from what I've seen, it can hurt the local fishing communities as well.

The one argument I've heard (in the Pacific, in Madagascar, and here at home) in defense of cutting off the fins and leaving the sharks to die is that the prized fins fetch a high price and provide the fisherman in impoverished areas with a solid source of income. My informal observations in the field - these are anecdotal comments, so should be read with caution - suggest there is little basis for that argument. Only the middlemen or the distributors seem to be getting rich off the practice.

The fishermen I've met who are encouraged to take shark fins end up fishing only for shark fins rather than engaging in their customary subsistence fishing or small income fishing practices. Catching sharks often means going farther, which costs more, and means being away from family for multiple days. They only see a fraction of the money fetched in the end by the seller of a fin, because the fishermen - we're talking about people in small villages in places like Madagascar - have no personal access to the market for shark fins (Asia) and have no leverage. There's not enough space in the boat, so even if the fishermen wanted to take the entire shark back for food, they can't. Add in the fact that the local shark populations are being depleted, and the destructive practice also turns out to be bad business for the local fishers.

No comments: