Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

America once took 32 tons of shark fins to court

Shark fins drying on the roof of a factory in Hong Kong, 2013.
Photo: Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: United States v. approximately 64,695 pounds of shark fins

What it’s about: A landmark 2008 federal court decision that helped preserve threatened shark populations and not, as the name first suggests, a daring heist carried off by a sentient 32-ton pile of shark fins.


Biggest controversy: In 2002, a joint Navy-Coast Guard effort searched the King Diamond II, a Hong Kong-based ship sailing under the American flag. On board, they found over 32.3 tons of shark fins, but no sharks. Finning (cutting off fins and discarding the rest of the shark) had been made illegal two years earlier, and the cargo was seized. The KDII’s owners were found guilty, and the fins were seized by the government. Their legal argument was that, since the KDII’s crew hadn’t actually caught the fish themselves, its boat full of fish parts wasn’t technically a fishing boat, and therefore was exempt from the law in question.

Strangest fact: That defense worked. While a district court found the boat’s owners guilty, and the seizure of the fins legal and appropriate, an appeals court reversed the decision in 2008, concluding that the law only prevented fishing boats from finning and then selling their wares in a U.S. port. As the King Diamond II was not only not a fishing boat, it was also bound for a foreign port, and therefore not subject to the law in question.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The appellate decision attracted enough attention to spur conservation efforts. Within a month of the appeal, Madeleine Bordallo—then and now Guam’s non-voting representative in Congress—introduced the Shark Conservation Act, which closed the loophole by making it illegal to remove a shark’s fins at sea, to have disembodied fins on a fishing vessel, to transfer them to another vessel, or even to catch either a sharkless fin or a finless shark. While the bill died in committee in 2008, it was passed by the House the following year, sponsored in the Senate by John Kerry, approved unanimously, and signed into law by President Obama in January of 2011, thus reminding us that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but also satisfying our long-standing curiosity about whether non-voting congressional representatives have any power.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Nobody tell Jason Statham, but we’re far deadlier to sharks than they are to us. Sharks kill an average of 4.3 people a year worldwide, and humans kill roughly 100 million sharks every year. Nearly all of that is due to fishing. If you order fish and chips in Australia, you’re probably getting shark (referred to as flake). Shark is a staple of cuisine from Iceland to India, but the biggest influence on finning is China’s emerging middle class. Shark fins are used in Chinese traditional medicine, and shark fin soup has long been considered a delicacy. Increasing demand has driven fin prices up to the point where it made more economic sense to fill up the King Diamond II with fins and simply toss the shark bodies back into the sea.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: As rare as they are, we’re still fascinated by shark attacks. While only three species of shark—the great white, tiger, and bull—have killed a significant number of humans, and while only around 80 unprovoked attacks a year are reported worldwide, they’re still the stuff of nightmares in the popular imagination. And for whatever reason, sharks like the taste of Americans. There have been over 1,100 attacks off the U.S. coast (not counting Hawaii) since 1958, compared to 117 for all of South America. Though it’s possible we’re just better at documenting these attacks, and, say, devoting a week of television programming to them.

Further down the Wormhole: The Coast Guard caught the KDII because it was low in the water, indicating the boat had a heavy cargo, but it didn’t have any fishing equipment. They initially suspected a drug shipment, but “the stench of decaying flesh quickly led them to a large quantity of shark fins.” The Coast Guard is one of seven uniformed branches of U.S. military service, alongside the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Public Health Service, and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, soon to be joined by SPACE! FORCE!, which is definitely a real thing that’s going to happen. While the Coast Guard’s primary mission during wartime is to protect the home front, that organization’s predecessor, the Revenue-Marine, sailed abroad to fight in the Quasi-War. We’ll look at America’s first undeclared (and largely forgotten) war next week.


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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.