It is one of the most gruesome hunts in the seafood industry.
Each year, the fins of up to 73 million sharks are cut from the backs of the majestic marine predators, their sometimes bleeding bodies thrown back into the ocean, where they are left to suffocate or die of blood loss.
But while the barbaric practice is driven by China, where shark fin soup is a status symbol for the rich and powerful, America’s seafood industry is not immune to the trade.
A series of recent criminal charges highlight how US companies, exploiting a patchwork of federal and state laws, provide a market for tusks that activists say is as reprehensible as the now-illegal ivory trade once was.
A complaint filed quietly last month in federal court in Miami accused a Florida Keys-based exporter, Elite Sky International, of falsely labeling about 5,666 pounds of shark fins bound for China as live Florida spiny lobsters. Another company, South Florida-based Aifa Seafood, is also under criminal investigation for similar violations, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
The company is run by a Chinese-American woman who pleaded guilty in 2016 to shipping more than half a ton of live lobsters from Florida to her native China without a permit.
Increased scrutiny from law enforcement comes as Congress is debating a federal ban on shark fins — making it illegal to import or export even fins caught from abroad. Every year, US wildlife inspectors seize thousands of shark fins in transit to Asia for failing to declare the shipments.
While not all sharks are killed just for their fins, none of the other parts of the shark harvested in the US and elsewhere — such as its meat, jaws or skin — can compete with fins in terms of value. Depending on the type of shark, a pound of fins can fetch hundreds of dollars, making it one of the most expensive seafood products by weight anywhere.
“If you quit because you can no longer sell fins, then what are you really fishing for?” said Whitney Webber, campaign director at Washington-based Oceana, which supports the ban.
Since 2000, federal law has made it illegal to clip fins from sharks and dump their bodies back into the ocean. However, individual states have wide latitude to decide whether or not businesses can collect fins from dead sharks at a dock or import them from abroad.
Legislation working its way through Congress would impose a near-total ban on the fin trade, similar to the action Canada took in 2019. The legislation, introduced in 2017 by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has majority support in both the House and Senate .
Among those opposing the proposed ban are Elite, which has hired lobbyists to urge Congress to vote down the bill, show the lobby files.
It is not known where Elite got her fins. But in the criminal complaint, the company was also accused of sourcing lobster from Nicaragua and Belize that it falsely claimed was caught in Florida. The company, linked to a New York-based Chinese-American seafood exporter, was accused of violating the Lacey Act, a century-old law that makes it a crime to submit false documents for any wildlife shipped overseas.
A lawyer for Elite would not comment on either two Aifa representatives when reached by phone.
71% reduction in shark species
Overfishing has led to a 71% decline in shark species since the 1970s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based group that monitors wildlife populations, estimates that more than a third of the 500 and more shark species in the world are threatened with extinction.
Contrary to industry complaints about excessive regulations, the U.S. is not a model of sustainable shark management, Webber said. He pointed to a recent finding by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that less than 23 percent of the 66 shark stocks in US waters are safe from overfishing. The status of more than half of the shark stocks is not even known.
The situation in Europe is even worse: new Greenpeace report, called “Hoked on Sharks”, revealed what it said was evidence of the deliberate targeting of juvenile blue sharks by fishing fleets from Spain and Portugal. The report found that the US is the world’s fourth largest exporter of sharks behind Spain, China and Portugal, exporting 3.2 million kilograms of meat – but not fins – worth more than $11 million in 2020.
Weber said that instead of protecting a small shark fishing industry, the U.S. should lead the way to protect slow-growing, long-living fish.
“We can’t ask other countries to clean up their act if we don’t do it well ourselves,” Weber said.
He said current laws are not enough of a deterrent in an industry where bad actors lured by the promise of huge profits are a recurring problem.
Case in point: Mark Harrison, a Florida fisherman who in 2009 pleaded guilty to three criminal charges related to the export of shark fins, some of them protected species. He was ordered to pay a fine of $5,000 and banned from having anything to do with the shark fin trade for five years.
But federal prosecutors allege he reconnected with former associates in 2013, in violation of his prison terms. He was arrested in 2020 on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud as part of a five-year investigation, called Operation Apex, targeting a dozen people who also allegedly profited from drug trafficking. Prosecutors allege Harrison’s Florida-based Phoenix Fisheries was a “shell company” for people based in California, where possession of fins has been illegal since 2011.
As part of the bust, Fed found documents for approximately six tons of shark fin exports and seized 18 bladders of totoaba fish, a delicacy in Asia derived from an endangered species. They also seized 18,000 marijuana plants, multiple firearms and $1 million in diamonds – indicating a criminal enterprise that went beyond illegal seafood and extended deep into the Mexican and Chinese mafia underworlds.
“This operation is about much more than disrupting the vile practice of finning sharks and leaving them to drown at sea to create a soup bowl,” said Bobby Christine, then the U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Georgia. year.
An attorney for Harrison declined to comment on the case, which has yet to go to trial. But unlike his co-defendants, Harrison was not involved in any drug or gun-related offences. Its supporters say it has complied with all laws and is being unfairly targeted by bureaucrats, overlooking the key role it played in the 1980s, when sharks were even more threatened, in growing the US shark fishery.
“They appear to be using the current widespread empathy towards sharks for publicity and career advancement in what would otherwise be a very ordinary affair,” says a website run by supporters seeking to raise $75,000 for a “Defense Fund Shark’ to help Harrison fight the tariff.
“In the process, they seek to tarnish Mark’s reputation and deal a blow to the American shark fishery,” according to the site, which was taken down after the AP began investigating.
Banning fishing can backfire
Demian Chapman, who leads shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, said the push to ban commercial shark fishing could fail.
“If you take the US out of the fin trade entirely, it won’t directly affect international demand, and it’s likely that other countries, with much less regulation of their fisheries, will fill the gap,” Chapman said.
He said the bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, appears to be driven by “shark fans” — not “shark finners” — and those who want to see fish species afforded the same very high level of protection afforded to marine mammals and sea turtles. He said few in the U.S. engage in the cruel, wasteful practice of shark finning, and that the U.S.’s role as a transit hub for fins can be remedied without punishing American fishermen.
“There is a disconnect between perceptions and reality,” Chapman said. “In the 25 years I’ve been studying sharks, they’ve gone from being demon fish to a group of species that many people want to protect. That’s great, but we need to support science-based management measures that address the real problems.”