Despite endangered populations around the globe, NOAA Fisheries says certain U.S.-caught shark species are sustainable seafood.

By Mike Pomranz
November 08, 2019

It sounds like a parody of a Chick-fil-A ad. A couple weeks ago, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries—the federal agency (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) "responsible for the stewardship of the nation's ocean resources and their habitat"—published a story to its website essentially asking Americans to "Eat mor shark." "U.S.-Caught Sharks are a Sustainable Food Choice," the title states, luring readers into an article suggesting that though "overfishing, habitat loss, and other practices have greatly depleted some shark populations overseas … that's not the case in the United States."

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"With science-based measures and strong enforcement, we are able to protect and rebuild shark populations while providing commercial and recreational fishermen with as many opportunities to fish as possible," Randy Blankinship, a fisheries management specialist who leads the group in charge of safeguarding shark populations in the Atlantic, is quoted as saying. "U.S. shark fishermen work under some of the most robust environmental standards in the world… Their decades of stewardship should be recognized at the market."

But should we really "keep a look out for U.S.-caught shark" at the seafood counter as NOAA Fisheries suggests? As a kid back in the '80s, I fondly remember ordering mako shark at seafood restaurants. (Yes, I was an annoying kid. Sue me!) But as I grew older, to my dismay, I saw it less and less, until eventually I was informed of why: Mako sharks aren't the necessarily most appropriate kids meal. In fact, the IUCN now lists them as endangered—creating a guilt-stricken adult out of my precocious childhood eating habit.

But in this case, the NOAA Fisheries article doesn't specifically mention mako. Blacktip and spiny dogfish sharks are given as examples of species that have had their stocks rebuilt. And sandbar sharks are offered as an "ongoing rebuilding effort" where catches are limited to allow stocks to regrow.

Still, some might be skeptical of such a recommendation coming from the Trump administration given its track record of rolling back environmental policies. However, Christopher M. Anderson, a professor of fisheries economics at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, told me we can trust NOAA Fisheries. "The United States fishery management is very effective," he began. "Even under the Trump administration, the division that manages fisheries has remained based in science and continued to develop policies based in science."

Anderson then laid out a very logical explanation: To earn a return on their investment, big fishing companies want shark stocks to be sustainable, otherwise they'll have no sharks left to fish. He also believes that the general premise of the NOAA Fisheries story is accurate: In recent years, reports came out that global shark populations are in bad shape, but in U.S. waters, that's not necessarily the case. As such, this NOAA Fisheries story is intended to counteract the misconception some consumers may have after conflating global shark and U.S. shark populations. Interestingly, Anderson also believes that those global reports caused America to become more diligent in assessing our own shark population, so it's possible that the NOAA Fisheries policies are more attuned than ever.

And yet, at a time when plant-based meat is all the rage, with many Americans attempting to eat fewer animals in general, the call to bring an already controversial food like shark back onto our plates is sure to receive some pushback. "U.S. progress in shark fisheries management is notable because most countries have yet to set even basic catch limits for these species, but there are still only a few U.S. success stories, and much more effort is needed to ensure recovery and sustainability over the long term," Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International, a project of The Ocean Foundation dedicated to shark conservation, told me via email.

Fordham then turned to my old pal, the mako shark. "Promoting consumption of Atlantic mako sharks is particularly irresponsible, given that the latest assessment shows continuing overfishing on an already depleted North Atlantic population," she stated. "Scientists recommend a retention ban in order to give the population a chance to recover over several decades. Instead of encouraging the public to eat makos, the U.S. should be leading other nations toward an Atlantic-wide agreement to fully protect this imperiled population." (Again, it's worth the reminder that NOAA Fisheries either purposefully or conveniently avoided mentioning mako in its article.)

In the end, the answer isn't cut and dry. Consider chicken: It's a staple of American diets, but you can still easily find people deeming poultry inhumane and harmful to the environment. Shark is simply a less consumed meat in this country. However, though it's unlikely that chicken will be removed from menus anytime soon, chicken advocates have forced changes in the chicken industry, leading major players like Perdue to improve conditions for its animals. The voice of conservationists can be beneficial, even if it's only as a counterpoint.

So it would seem that NOAA Fisheries' best advice is its story's third sentence: "Finding sustainable products is as simple as asking where it was harvested." It's advice that could apply to any food really: If you know what you're getting, and are comfortable with that choice, then by all means, eat shark (or whatever the food is). The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch will even break down the pros and cons of different types of shark for you. Because keep in mind, NOAA Fisheries doesn't say eat "all" shark; they say eat "U.S.-caught" shark. The whole premise is based on being an educated consumer.

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