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Atlantic states ease limits on shark finning on dogfish

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Conservation groups are decrying a decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to loosen what critics say is already a lax restriction on shark finning.

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“Shark finning” refers to slicing the fins off and discarding the body at sea while the shark is still alive. Sharks die from suffocation or are eaten because they cannot move.

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. Conservationists are concerned that the change makes it easier for illegal finning of dogfish and similar sharks to go undetected.

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.

It is estimated that the global value of the shark fin trade ranges from U.S. $540 million to U.S. $1.2 billion.

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 the shark fin trade, but exempted the smooth as well as spiny dogfish.

The spiny dogfish is a small shark present in all of the world’s oceans. More than 70 million sharks die each year as a result of "shark finning".

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