Georgia is main gateway for controversial shark fin exports

Georgia is linked to the global market for shark fins, but the business is so controversial that there's a bill in congress that would ban selling them.

A Channel 2 Action News consumer investigation reveals Georgia's link to the global market for shark fins.

The fins are so controversial a bill in Congress right now would ban selling them.

Channel 2 consumer investigator Jim Strickland obtained federal records that show Georgia has become the main gateway to export shark fins from the U.S. to Hong Kong. There, the fins are a high-dollar cultural delicacy.

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The new bill, which would create the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act, has stirred a fight over whether dealing in shark fins should be made illegal.

Videos of “finning,” where foreign fishing fleets cut the fins off live sharks then throw the fish back to slowly die, pepper YouTube.

"You shouldn't do it and that's all there is to it. Not to mention it's cruel," licensed Georgia shark fisherman Charlie Phillips told Jim Strickland.

As vice chair of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Phillips advises the government on seafood policy.

Strickland asked Phillips if he was aware of sharks being made to suffer by illegal finning.

"In the United States? No," Phillips replied.

Finning live sharks has been outlawed in the U.S since 2000.

Here, fins must be harvested on land, after the fish is caught and killed at sea.

Violators risk fines and banishment from the industry.

"I don't let anyone do anything illegal on my boat," commercial shark fisherman Dave Campo told Strickland.

Campo was hosting federal researchers during a recent fishing trip while he caught 63 sharks. Campo says 90 percent of the fish gets used.

After drying, the fins from the sharks Campo caught will likely fly from Atlanta to China where shark fin soup can go for $100 per bowl.

The fins are 5 percent of the shark's weight, but half the value.

"Once that fin is off the boat and is in the market, it is impossible to tell if that came from a shark that has been finned," Lora Snyder of the environmental group Oceana told Strickland.

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Snyder says the best solution to finning is an all-out ban in the U.S. in hopes that other countries will follow.

"That will be a very deep cut to this global trade that is responsible for as many as 73 million sharks a year," Snyder said.

State laws banning fins in California and Texas helped make Georgia the nation's chief fin export site.

Georgia congressman David Scott and Buddy Carter are co-sponsoring a bill to outlaw fin sales nationwide.

"They're impacting the American fisherman for what may be happening in other places, that we'll never control," Campo said.

It's not just the fishermen saying so.

So does the director of the nation's official shark research lab, Dr. Bob Heuter of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

"They'll have to throw the fins in the dumpsters which is wasteful and it doesn't make any sense for the fishery," Dr. Heuter said.

Dr. Hueter says a ban will wipe out responsible shark fishing here, while countries that still allow live finning will fill the void.

"By doing this we're essentially punishing the wrong people," Dr. Heuter told Strickland.

There's also the argument of whether the hunger for fins threatens shark numbers.

"Twenty-five percent of sharks and their relatives are threatened with extinction," Snyder said.

Federal scientists survey shark populations off the Atlantic coast every two to three years.

Figures obtained by Strickland show between 2009 and the last survey in 2015, shark abundance was up 92 percent.

"Shark populations are exploding," Campo said.

Campo says catch limits and the other regulations fishermen must follow have helped sharks rebound and even thrive here.

Snyder argues choking off the fin supply will save sharks across the globe.

"The United States could truly step up and lead and we could get other countries to get out of this global shark fin trade," Snyder said.

In March more than 150 scientists including a researcher at the Georgia Aquarium and a University of Georgia professor wrote Congress in favor of a fin ban.

State fishing regulators in Florida and Louisiana have come out against it.

Atlanta-based UPS announced two years ago it would no longer ship shark fins.