JOSHUA GOODMAN Associated Press
MIAMI – It’s one of the most gruesome hunts in the seafood industry.
Each year, the fins of as many as 73 million sharks are severed from the backs of majestic marine predators, their bleeding bodies sometimes dumped 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, the US seafood industry is not immune to the trade. .
A string of recent indictments highlights how corporate America, taking advantage of a patchwork of federal and state laws, is fueling a market for fins that activists say is as reprehensible as it once was the now illegal trade in elephant ivory.
A lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Miami accused Florida Keys-based exporter Elite Sky International of falsely labeling some 5,666 pounds of shark fins destined for China as Florida live crawfish. . Another company, South Florida-based Aifa Seafood, is also being criminally investigated 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 in 2016 pleaded guilty to shipping more than half a ton of live lobsters from Florida to her native China without a permit.
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The heightened law enforcement scrutiny comes as Congress debates a federal shark fin ban, making it illegal to import or export even fins caught overseas. Each year, US wildlife inspectors seize thousands of shark fins in transit to Asia for failing to report shipments.
While not all sharks are killed solely for their fins, none of the other shark parts harvested in the United States and elsewhere — such as its meat, jaws, or skin — can compete with fins in terms of value. Depending on the type of shark, a single pound of fins can fetch hundreds of dollars, making it one of the most expensive seafood products by weight.
“If you’re going bankrupt because you can’t sell fins anymore, then why are you actually fishing?” said Whitney Webber, campaign manager at Washington-based Oceana, which supports the ban.
Since 2000, federal law has prohibited cutting off shark fins and dumping their bodies in the ocean. However, individual states have wide latitude in deciding whether or not companies can harvest the fins of dead sharks from a dock or import them from overseas.
Legislation pending in Congress would impose a near-total ban on the fin trade, similar to the measure Canada took in 2019. The legislation, introduced in 2017 by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has majority support in the House and the Senate. .
Among those opposing the proposed ban is Elite, which has hired lobbyists to urge Congress to vote against the bill, according to lobbying records.
It’s unclear where Elite got their fins. But in the criminal complaint, the company was also accused of buying lobster from Nicaragua and Belize that it said was caught in Florida. The company, affiliated with a New York-based Chinese-American seafood exporter, has been accused of violating the Lacey Act, a century-old law that makes it a crime to submit false documentation for any wildlife shipped to the ‘foreign.
A lawyer for Elite would not comment, nor would two representatives for Aifa when reached by phone.
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 tracks wildlife populations, estimates that more than a third of the more than 500 species of sharks in the world are threatened with extinction.
Contrary to industry complaints about excessive regulations, the United States is hardly a model for sustainable shark management, Webber said. She pointed to a recent finding by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that less than 23% of the 66 shark stocks in US waters are safe from overfishing. The status of more than half of shark stocks is not even known.
The situation in Europe is even worse: a new Greenpeace report, titled “Hooked on Sharks”, has revealed what it says is evidence of the deliberate targeting of juvenile blue sharks by fishing fleets from Spain and Portugal. The report found that the United States is the world’s fourth largest exporter of sharks behind Spain, China and Portugal, with exports of 3.2 million kilograms of meat – but not fins – worth over $11 million in 2020.
Webber said that rather than protecting a small shark fishing industry, the United States should lead the way in protecting slow-growing, long-lived fish.
“We can’t ask other countries to clean up their act if we don’t do it right ourselves,” Webber said.
She said current laws are not a deterrent enough in an industry where bad actors lured by the promise of huge profits are a recurring problem.