Florida wildlife officers made a grisly discovery aboard a Key West shrimp boat this week: dozens of pairs of dismembered shark fins.
The boat was discovered about 20 miles north of the island Wednesday night, an indication that illegal finning still occurs in Florida waters despite being banned more than 16 years ago. Buying and selling fins also remains legal in most states, fueling a practice that targets some of the world’s biggest and longest-lived sharks that are also among the planet’s oldest species.
“When we import them we have no idea if they came from sustainable shark fisheries or fisheries where they’re still finning,” said Mariah Pfleger, a scientist for Oceana, which is pushing a bill to ban the trade.
The boat was stopped by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers who alerted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. FWC referred questions to NOAA and NOAA declined to release details, saying it was too soon in the investigation.
However, Oceana reported that officers found between 30 and 40 pairs of fins. NOAA Fisheries is continuing to investigate and no charges have been filed, spokeswoman Kim Amendola said in an email.
Worldwide, shark finning has been blamed for killing up to 73 million sharks every year, with 27,000 tons of fins traded in 2013. The practice can be particularly gruesome: after their fins are sliced off, the sharks are often tossed overboard and either suffocate because they can’t swim or are eaten by other predators.
And the problems caused by overfishing and finning aren’t limited to just sharks. In their absence, smaller fish they eat are increasing, which is decimating populations of shellfish. Over fishing has also become so severe that many species are being killed at a rate faster than they can reproduce, further driving down numbers.
The loss of sharks could also have economic repercussions: shark tourism helps pump more than $220 million annually into Florida’s economy and produces about 3,700 jobs, Oceana reported earlier this month.
A bill to ban the trade, introduced last year with bipartisan backing, is now winding its way through Congress.