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Is it Legal?

After realizing sharks are quickly disappearing from our planet, most people want to understand the laws and level of protection that exist to prevent this. Many wonder if governments are stepping in to stop this impending crisis. Is it illegal to trade or sell shark products? Are there international regulations to prevent sharks from being overfished? Are sharks – particularly those that are now threatened with extinction, protected?

The simple answer is, there isn't a simple answer. But more often than not, the answer is "no," with caveats, to most of these questions. The reality of the situation is, laws to protect sharks are few and far between and many that do exist have significant loopholes that are being exploited. Worse, many others are often ineffective due to a lack of political will or funding to enforce them.

Truly understanding the intricacies of the laws would be a full time job as they are incredibly complex and can change significantly even at the municipality level. However, here are some high-level answers to the most common questions regarding common shark laws and legislation.

 Is the sale of shark products legal?

Yes, shark products, including shark fin, can legally be sold anywhere in the world with a few exceptions. There is a growing movement to ban the sale of shark fin products. Currently, it is illegal to trade, possess and sell shark fin in: Guam, Saipan, Toronto (and several outlying cities), Hawaii, Washington, California, Illinois, and legislation is proposed in many other states. To learn more, visit our partner Fin Free (

Illegal basking and whale shark fins for sale in China. Photo: Julie AndersenIllegal basking and whale shark fins for sale in China. Photo: Julie AndersenThree species (whale, basking, white) are also restricted in international trade by the United Nations Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) signed by 175 nations. These species are on Appendix II, meaning the trade of whale, basking, or white shark products requires the appropriate permits. The participating countries are responsible for enforcing the treaty's provisions and imposing penalties upon individuals caught illegally smuggling products.

Additionally, certain countries also protect specific species, for instance, in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the State of California, it is illegal to sell any white shark products (and furthermore, harm a white shark), as the white shark is a protected species. A growing number of countries protect the basking shark and whale shark nationally as well. Australia also protects the grey nurse shark also known as the raggedtooth or sand tiger shark within its territorial waters.

However, legal protection does not imply these animals are truly protected. For instance, in South Africa, the Natal Sharks Board who operate the shark nets are permitted to catch and kill white sharks, and it is a widely known fact South Africa has an illegal fishing problem, with commercial and recreational fishermen alike catching white sharks to feed a growing international black market for white shark jaws, fins, and teeth.

Furthermore, many countries are engaged in either trading or supplying shark fin. More than 100 countries are involved in the business of trading in shark fins with most exporting to the main consumer nations: mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. The United States and the European Union also import significant quantities to local Chinese communities.

Hong Kong handles 50% – 80% of the world trade in shark fin. And the major suppliers might surprise you: Europe, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, the United States, India, Japan, Mexico, Yemen, and United Arab Emirates.

A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe. Spain is by far the largest supplier, but Norway, Britain, France, Portugal, and Italy are also major suppliers.

Fins from all over the world are shipped to Hong Kong and China for distribution. Photo: Julie AndersenFins from all over the world are shipped to Hong Kong and China for distribution. Photo: Julie Andersen

 Are there international regulations to protect sharks?

There are currently no binding international treaties or legislation that prohibit or even regulate shark finning, let alone address the management of shark populations globally. Collectively, the world is slow to realize and react to the danger confronting sharks.

The first multi-lateral organization to address the issue of shark finning was the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In 1999, an International Plan of Action for Sharks was created that recommends sharks be landed with their fins intact.

To beat the system, fishermen often land sharks whole only to discard their bodies on land. Photo: Gary StokesTo beat the system, fishermen often land sharks whole only to discard their bodies on land. Photo: Gary StokesMany believe this is the best way to limit shark finning – as requiring sharks to be landed whole significantly reduces the amount of sharks that can be caught and the time a fishing boat can spend at sea. A ship can only hold a finite number of whole sharks, but exponentially more fins when removed from the sharks as fins account for only between 2 – 5% of total body weight. When shark finning occurs at sea, the less valuable shark body can be thrown back, and a fishing boat can stay at sea for months finning tens of thousands of sharks at once.

Since 1999, the UN General Assembly and some regional fisheries management organizations that span multiple countries have issued recommendations that sharks should not be killed solely for their fins and should be landed whole and fully utilized.

However, these recommendations are just that: voluntary recommendations. None of them are legally binding and few countries adhere to them.

 Aren’t there areas sharks are protected?

What about Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)?

Yes, sharks can be protected within certain MPA boundaries. But their size and effectiveness is significantly limited.

As of February 2009, there were approximately 5000 MPAs located around the world – although only 0.8 of one percent of the world's oceans are actually included in marine protected areas.

Blacktip shark in Aliwal Shoal marine protected area. Photo: Simon De WaalBlacktip shark in Aliwal Shoal marine protected area. Photo: Simon De Waal

The term MPA is used widely around the globe, but it has several meanings and implications complicating the matter significantly. Additionally it is used interchangeably with terms like Marine Parks, Marine Reserves, and Marine Sanctuaries. It is also important to note that the term Marine Protected Area often does not imply that fishing – including shark fishing – is prohibited. Many times, MPAs are created to benefit fisheries management.

For example, in the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest MPA, shark fishing is regulated, licensed and legal – for certain species in certain areas. In South Africa, MPAs are zoned, and activities such as shark fishing are only allowed in certain areas and catch limits for certain species can be imposed. Additionally, some shark species are regionally protected in certain MPAs. In Belize, Marine Reserves allow for fishing within certain areas, and in Ecuador, including the Galapagos, certain species are allowed to be caught by the local residents – for certain uses. Sea Shepherd has long had programs to protect the Galapagos. To learn more (LINK)

Protected tiger shark caught in an MPA killed by a shark net. Photo: Steve BenjaminProtected tiger shark caught in an MPA killed by a shark net. Photo: Steve BenjaminThe ideal MPA is a full no-take area – which typically means it is not allowed to remove anything from the MPA – including sharks. But, many MPAs are either multiple use (meaning there are designated take and no-take areas) or seasonal/temporary management in nature, where fishing is restricted seasonally or temporarily to let the local ecosystem recuperate. It is confusing enough to make your head spin. Bottom line, don't assume that within those 5000 MPAs, shark fishing is unilaterally prohibited. It isn't.

Due to restrictions in enforcement (particularly against foreign ships) most of the times, MPAs are limited to locations in territorial waters of coastal states. Rarely, MPAs extend through a country's exclusive economic zones or even the high seas – where the law of the seas prevail, significantly regulating any one country's (or even a consortium of countries) ability to enforce restrictions. Important to note – a large percentage of the oceans are considered international waters – and not a single entity has jurisdiction of fisheries management in these areas. Making them, essentially, fair game.

And, remember, even no-take MPAs only protect the animals that dwell within their boundary lines at all time. Many species of sharks are migratory, or live in the open oceans, leaving them virtually impossible to protect via the current MPA model.

Studies prove many fins in Hong Kong originate from Marine Protected Areas. Photo: Gary StokesStudies prove many fins in Hong Kong originate from Marine Protected Areas. Photo: Gary StokesFinally, thanks to the demand for shark, chances are that illegal fishing for sharks is occurring in nearly any Marine Protected Area that has sharks in its water – regardless of its status. Marine Protected Areas are only as good as the political will and also funds required to enforce them. Sadly, many MPAs are under-funded and/or managed by corrupt officials who are quick to turn a blind eye and have no intent of enforcing them. Sharks everywhere are under attack; in both World Heritage sites well known for their "protected" shark populations, illegal shark fishing in Galapagos and Cocos is running rampant.

For instance, a large number of foreign vessels operate from Costa Rica – belonging to countries ranging from Taiwan to Spain to Ecuador. Some of these vessels catch sharks from outside Costa Rica's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and then transfer these products at sea. Others fish blatantly within the Marine Reserve of Isla de Cocos, with their vessels landing their catch at secure docks, late at night. Sea Shepherd has been asked to protect Cocos from these flagrant abuses by the Costa Rican government in the past. And in Galapagos, though many shark finners have been caught, not one has been successfully prosecuted, though SSCS Galapagos has busted shark finners several times. And most recently, a new attorney has been brought on board to change the outlook for sharks in the legal system.

 Is shark finning illegal?

The answer is sometimes. In some places.

Highly threatened species caught in Australia for their fins. Photo: Julie AndersenHighly threatened species caught in Australia for their fins. Photo: Julie AndersenWhile shark finning is contrary to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's International Plan for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, as mentioned above, these are not legal requirements – merely recommendations – and thus cannot be enforced.

Each country with a coastline is responsible for laws and regulations pertaining to fishing in their waters – within their territorial area and within a lesser extent, their exclusive economic zones. And, a number of countries have varying degrees of shark-finning legislation.

In some cases, only whole sharks may be landed. In other cases, amounts are banned by a rule that a vessel may not land shark fins that weigh more than 5 percent of the "dressed" weight of the sharks: that is, the weight of the carcass after the removal of the head and innards.

65 countries have banned finning – many more need to be encouraged to enact legislation.

Countries/Regions with Shark Finning Regulations:

American Samoa
Australia (most States & Territories)
Cape Verde
Costa Rica
El Salvador

European Union
Seychelles (foreign vessels only)
South Africa (in national waters only)
United States

Many of these regulations are weak – or are open to interpretation – and are being exploited. The following countries have stronger legislation, requiring shark fins to be partially or fully attached to the shark carcass in some or all of their fisheries:

Costa Rica
El Salvador
United Kingdom

And, all of the above laws prohibit the act of shark finning – not shark fishing. At this point, banning shark finning alone does not solve the problem, as sharks are still being fished at unsustainable rates. Often when laws are created, shark finning still continues. What is needed is a ban on shark fishing, not just a ban on shark finning.

Mako sharks caught for their meat and fins – targeted intentionally by tuna fishermen. Photo: Julie AndersenMako sharks caught for their meat and fins – targeted intentionally by tuna fishermen. Photo: Julie AndersenThe largely un-policed international seas represent another issue. Thanks to shortage of resources, many countries, particularly those economically challenged like Columbia, Ecuador, and Oman, that do have shark finning regulations don't aggressively police their waters – or chose to turn a blind eye. Meanwhile ships from wealthier shipping fleets from across the world plunder their last remaining sharks. Clearly, we cannot rely on the laws alone.

Sadly, it isn't just shark finning. The world is battling with Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing globally across all species. Costing the world between $4 – $9 billion a year, not to mention the high price of species extinction and ecosystem destruction, IUU fishing accounts for 30 – 40% of the global catch. This is devastating for the oceans and for the planet, particularly to some of the poorest countries in the world where dependency on fishing is a critical part of survival.

Fins from all over the world for sale at a distributor. Photo: Julie AndersenFins from all over the world for sale at a distributor. Photo: Julie AndersenIn Mozambique alone, it is anticipated IUU fishing accounts for $40 million a year in lost income. With 80% of Mozambicans living below the poverty level, it isn't surprising that shark finning is running rampant. Fins from a single shark can fetch up to US$120, a few months' income, paid by some savvy businessmen from Hong Kong who also provide the gear. Consider a small dugout boat can land as many as 1,000 sharks a year and you realize the extent of the problem. The word is out. Shark fins mean big money and fishermen everywhere, desperate to feed their families, are heeding the call.

 Is shark fishing illegal?

Not generally. With a few exceptions.

There are legal shark fisheries all over the world – most of which have little or no monitoring or management – even though major declines of shark stocks have been recorded in the last few decades. Many governments and the UN have acknowledged the need for shark fisheries management, but little progress has been made.

The meat of dogfishes, smoothhounds, cat sharks, skates, and rays is in high demand by European consumers and heavily fished. In North America, the blue shark is sought after as a sport fish while the porbeagle, mako, black tip, and spiny dogfish are part of commercial fisheries. In South Africa, many soupfins, seven gill, and gully sharks are exported to Australia. In the U.S., Florida has the biggest active commercial shark fishery – accounting for over 4.8 million pounds of sharks. And unfortunately, recreational shark fishing exacerbates the rapid decline in shark populations and making it even more difficult to regulate stocks.

The following countries have banned shark fishing entirely:

  • Congo-Brazzaville
  • French Polynesia
  • Israel
  • Maldives
  • Palau
  • Saipan
  • Guam
 Why isn’t there more protection?

Protected, immature whale shark and basking shark fins – openly displayed in Hong Kong. Photo: Julie AndersenProtected, immature whale shark and basking shark fins – openly displayed in Hong Kong. Photo: Julie AndersenMost times, regulation and protection cannot occur without volumes of data over years proving that it is required. Otherwise, the parties lobbying the hardest, like the commercial fishing fleets, can place enough doubt in politicians' minds that passing prohibitive legislation is nearly impossible. Sadly, it is usually a scenario of "prove it" with the burden on the "conservationists" when it comes to protecting species.

And this data for sharks is sorely lacking. Until the last few decades or so, the economic value of sharks was low, and thus, there was little incentive for governments to use precious funding resources monitoring shark populations. Consequently, there is very little global baseline information available on the number of sharks deliberately fished, the state of shark populations and the decline rates over time, the number caught incidentally, the individual species that are most heavily targeted, or the even volume of international trade and consumption of shark products.

One of the biggest issues is the lack of species-specific and size-specific catch and discard data. In addition, once a shark fin is detached from the shark and dried, it is difficult to identify the shark species that was the source of the fin. As a result, it is almost impossible to track which species are being killed. It is also very difficult to assess shark populations because of the lack of knowledge about critical habitat areas for open ocean sharks and the absence of accurate population monitoring, particularly in international waters. Commonly, fishermen can deplete an entire local population before scientists are even able to perform baseline population studies.

Although the UN FAO attempts to gather shark catch data from around the world, most countries do not supply it – and those that do, provide data that seems questionable. In many countries, shark landings are reported inconsistently and voluntarily – originating from unreliable logbooks or third-party observer data. And, since at least 30 – 50% of shark fishing and finning is done illegally, none of these figures are reported or tracked.

Legal or illegal – it is difficult to know in the shark fin shops all over China. Photo: Julie AndersenLegal or illegal – it is difficult to know in the shark fin shops all over China. Photo: Julie AndersenThe gathering of shark trade data is also problematic. Hong Kong, the epicenter for the shark fin trade serves as a clearinghouse for shark fins worldwide. The fins are exported without logging countries of origin. Enormous discrepancies also exist between import and export logs between countries. For instance, in the U.S., shark fin imports are recorded but shark fin exports are not. Of course, this is all further hampered by the fact that much of the shark fin that ends up in the consumer market was smuggled and/or traded on the black market first. Research indicates that the fins of up to 73 million sharks move through the shark fin market of Hong Kong each year, whereas countries report to the UN only a fraction of that.

So while we know it is happening and we can point to countless scientific studies, we are still struggling with the burden of proof to protect sharks. And let's not forget – protection without enforcement means the laws are useless.

And unfortunately, sharks battle with an age-old image problem as well. Most people's fear of them outweighs their desire to save them – let alone consider the realities of their extinction. This often stands in the way of their protection.

 Why don’t we just put more sharks on CITES?

Problem solved, right?

Not so fast. CITES officially meets once every three years to consider adding new species onto its list. Prior to the conference, it reviews thousands of proposals to protect an individual plant or animal species in trouble. Only enough proposals are selected that can be realistically addressed and voted on by the member states during its 2-week conference. So, for instance, during the last conference, only 40 species of plants and animals made it onto the agenda. The lobbying reigns supreme and species protection is a complex matter of politics often driven by ulterior motives and under-the-table deals – not which animal or plants are most deserving of the protection. Last conference, two shark species were considered, spiny dogfish and porbeagle. Their acceptance was blocked by a minority of countries, despite severe population declines in the North Atlantic by up to 95 per cent for the spiny dogfish and 89 per cent for the porbeagle, in the last ten and forty years, respectively. So, it isn't that easy to just add animals to CITES.

CITES is a valuable organization, but its process hardly results in a comprehensive listing of endangered species or an efficient means of broad protection. Another organization, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which started CITES, is widely recognized as the organization that provides a more accurate view. IUCN relies on the scientific assessment of species and is not encumbered by international politics. On the IUCN's Red List of endangered species, 50 shark species are listed as being at high risk of extinction (either Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable) and 63 additional shark species are approaching threatened status. Another 199 species of sharks are considered 'data deficient', many of which may well be endangered, but there is insufficient data to determine their status. There is also regional information available to indicate that sharks are functionally extinct in large parts of the ocean due to over fishing.

Four species of hammerheads, their numbers down up to 98% were rejected as an addition to CITES last year due to political pressure from shark finning nations. Photo: Rob Stewart Four species of hammerheads, their numbers down up to 98% were rejected as an addition to CITES last year due to political pressure from shark finning nations. Photo: Rob Stewart Sadly, although only three out of over 500 species of shark are protected from international trade, this is not an indication of which species deserve to be protected, but rather a reflection of the inadequate methods we currently have of providing worldwide protection to endangered species.

And CITES protection doesn't ensure animals are protected. Whale, basking, and white shark fins and other products are still being sold on the market even as you read this. Of course, with an Appendix II listing, trade of these products is allowed – but regulated; exporting countries must supply traders with the proper permits. Even if sharks were on Appendix I – it is still up to each individual country to enforce CITES, which is problematic (see below.) Like any other extinction trade species, a significant black market exists for shark products. Only until there is no demand will the supply stop.

 Why aren’t laws enforced?

As has been mentioned throughout this section, legislation and laws are only part of the equation. Once they are instituted, enforcement of these regulations must occur – to ensure compliance. Unfortunately, this is largely not the case.

Many governments are unable to fund efforts, as the costs are quite substantial. Often shark finning or fishing bans are symbolic gestures, but not cost-effective endeavors in terms of actually enforcing them, and thus, they are meaningless. Patrolling thousands of nautical miles, effectively inspecting every boat and log book, and prosecuting offenders means hundreds of thousands if not millions of US dollars a year. Sadly, many of these economically strained countries do not realize the value the sharks in the water play to their overarching country's economics. This may require industrialized nations to step in and assist with the funding of these efforts.

Shark fins drying in the sun on a city street in Hong Kong. Recent studies indicate many of these fins originate in areas sharks are protected – like Cocos and Galapagos. Photo Julie AndersenShark fins drying in the sun on a city street in Hong Kong. Recent studies indicate many of these fins originate in areas sharks are protected – like Cocos and Galapagos. Photo Julie AndersenGiven the stakes, many governmental officials may also lack the political will to enforce their legislation. Bribery and corruption are common – ensuring wealthy middle-men can continue acquiring their valuable fins – for trade in other countries. In South Africa recently, a seized shipment of 4 tons of shark fins was sold back to the commercial fishery the fins were seized from. And the practice isn't limited to members of the "shark fin mafia". Governments of one country often put pressure on governments of others (whose waters have healthy shark populations) through under-the-table deals and large-scale investment. For instance, it is widely known the Costa Rican government accepted millions of dollars in infrastructure investments from Taiwan in return for the establishment of the "shark fin highway" – a series of private docks in Puntarenas, allowing illegal shark fins to freely pass through by the hundreds of thousands.

Effectively enforcing bans also presents problems due to the black markets and the ease of smuggling fins, due to their size. Fins move out of the Galapagos easily – in suitcases. Because of this, Sea Shepherd has k9 units in the Galapagos that are used to sniff out smuggled contraband like shark fin. Most significantly, any regional or wide-scale regulation on the oceans is inherently difficult to enforce because it is nearly impossible to patrol the open sea.


Salmon sharks, killed en masse for their fins and livers. Photo: Julie AndersenSalmon sharks, killed en masse for their fins and livers. Photo: Julie Andersen