UK Government to Introduce World-Leading Ban on Shark Fin Trade

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Some 80 tons of shark fins were exported by UK fisheries in 2017-18 (Photo: Shutterstock)

The UK Government has formally announced that it is to implement a total ban on the trade in shark fins. The new legislation is part of the Government's Action Plan for Animal Welfare, a wide-ranging plan to eradicate cruelty to animals and improve standards of animal welfare.

It is widely recognised that sharks play a vital role in the success of marine ecosystems, and yet many species of shark face significant population pressures, primarily due to overfishing. Of more than 500 species of shark, 143 are listed as ‘threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – with different species ranging from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’. 

Shark finning – the practice of removing fins from sharks, often left alive and thrown back ino the water to die – has been banned throughout the European Union for nearly 20 years. However, the practice of separating fins from sharks that are landed intact has remained legal. Up to 20kg of fins are allowed to be transported throughout the European Union 'for personal consumption', but as it is virtually impossible to trace the origins of a detached fin, it was thought that the legal trade in fins provided a cover for the shark-finning industry.

The ban on the trade in shark fins was driven, in part, by a campaign fronted by UK conservation charity, Shark Guardian and supported by Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation. Taking advantage of the UK's departure from EU regulations, the 'Finspire Change' campaign began in May 2020, after a petition to the UK government gathered more than 115,000 signatures, forcing a debate in Parliament. The addition of the shark fin ban to the Action Plan for Animal Welfare was subsequently announced in a statement by the UK Environment Secretary, George Eustice, in May 2021.

'Shark finning is indescribably cruel and causes thousands of shark to die terrible deaths. It is also unforgivably wasteful,' said Animal Welfare minister Lord Zac Goldsmith, commenting on the announcement. 'The practice is rightly banned in UK waters, but the trade continues, with serious implications for the future of these magnificent creatures. That is why we are now banning the import both of detached shark fins and shark fin products. Our action will not only help boost shark numbers, it will send a clear message that we do not support an industry that is forcing many species to the brink of extinction.'

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Blue sharks populations have been severely depleted by overfishing (Photo: Shutterstock)

The new legislation is supported by a number of government initiatives, including the 'Blue Belt' programme, which has expanded marine protection zones around British Overseas Territories to an area the size of India. There are also plans to pilot 'Highly Protected Marine Areas', and a ban on bottom trawling through existing MPAs is also under consideration.

Ali Hood, Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust said: 'The Shark Trust welcomes the prohibition in trade in detached fins as the next action in a history of proactive moves by the UK Government, which supported leaving fins naturally attached as best practice years before adoption of the policy by the EU in 2013. It is encouraging to see the UK addressing the fin trade as an element of overfishing: the principal threat to sharks and rays. And we’re noting that the UK is ramping up its engagement in domestic and international shark conservation issues, currently championing the science-based advice for a prohibition on mako in North Atlantic high-seas fisheries.'

The UK ban on the import and export of shark fins will be extended to include not just shark fins, but all products which contain shark fins, including shark fin soup and other products. A statement from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) states that the UK 'will continue to champion conservation measures for sharks through Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (the international organisations which regulate fishing activities on the High Seas) and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which prohibits or requires trades to be carefully regulated.'

'The UK Government's decision to ban all imports and exports of shark fin is a significant step towards protecting sharks,' said Shark Guardian Director, Brendon Sing, following the success of the Finspire Change campaign. 'One-third of all sharks are threatened with extinction with many populations worldwide overfished, causing negative effects in those ecosystems. Between 2017-2018 the UK exported 83 tons of shark fin (approx 200,000 sharks killed) and there was a personal allowance of 20kg that could also be brought into the UK. Thankfully this new legislation will now put an end to any further imports and exports of shark fin.'

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