Conservationists contend Atlantic anti-finning rule lax

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission eased a rule allowing fishermen to remove fins from legally caught smooth dogfish before bringing them to shore. (File photo, 1996 / May 22, 2013)

Conservationists are decrying a move by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to loosen what critics say is already a lax restriction on shark finning, the controversial practice of slicing the fins off and discarding the body at sea.

At its spring meeting Tuesday in Alexandria, Va., the fisheries commission voted to allow fishing boats catching smooth dogfish to more than double the ratio of fins to bodies that they bring back to port. The change makes it easier for illegal finning of dogfish and similar looking sharks to go undetected, conservationists contend.

Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International, called the commission's move "a giant step backwards" at a time when many other nations are imposing more stringent rules to prevent finning.

Mid-Atlantic landings of smooth dogfish, also known as smooth-hounds, more than doubled from 2000 to 2011, according to Fordham, whose group is backed by the Ocean Foundation. US Atlantic fishermen land more smooth dogfish than any other shark species except for spiny dogfish. The catch is mostly exported, with the meat used in fish and chips and the fins in shark-fin soup.

Allowing fishermen to land more fins than carcasses makes it difficult to enforce restrictions on finning, Fordham said. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates fishing in ocean waters from three to 200 miles offshore, switched in 2008 to what has become a widely accepted international practice of requiring that all fins landed still be attached to the fish.

Fordham said to counter the coastwide relaxation, conservationists would seek to bring public pressure on individual Atlantic states to apply strict finning rules in their waters.

Earlier this year, Maryland lawmakers voted to ban possession or trade in shark fins - but exempted smooth as well as spiny dogfish.