A federal agency said on Thursday that it made a mistake with a key piece of data it gave to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker as he was building a case to shut down America's shark fin trade.
Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, has cited more than 500 incidents involving complaints of shark finning in the U.S., dating back to January 2010, as cause to support shutting down the trade. But the number is actually 85.
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Booker reached out to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration months ago to find out how often it investigates allegations of shark finning, an illegal practice in which a shark's fins are removed and the shark is dumped back into the water, sometimes while it's still alive.
An NOAA worker's error involving a new case management system caused the mistake in the number of finning incident reports, said Casey Brennan, chief of staff for the NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement. He said the number of reports that led to charges was 26.
"Shark finning has been and will remain a priority for NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement," Brennan said. "It's absolutely something we investigate and take seriously."
Booker has introduced a bill, approved by a commerce and science committee and endorsed by more than 100 scientists, that would make it illegal for any person to "possess, transport, offer for sale, sell, or purchase shark fins or products containing shark fins," essentially ending the American fin industry. His office didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment on Thursday.
Some commercial fishing groups have pushed back against Booker's idea of shutting down the American fin trade. They draw a key distinction between illegal finning, which animal welfare and conservation groups deride as cruel, and the legal removal of fins from sustainably fished sharks during processing on land.
Saving Seafood, a fishing industry trade group, asked the NOAA to clarify the figures about shark finning incidents after seeing conflicting data on the agency's website.
"Shark finning is a reprehensible activity that has been outlawed in the U.S. and is opposed by participants in the sustainable U.S. shark fishery," said Robert Vanasse, executive director of the group. "Members of our coalition do not believe there is any need for Booker's bill."
The NOAA's statement that the information about finning incidents was incorrect underscored tensions between conservation groups and fishing interests about the fin business. Activist groups, including Washington, D.C.-based Oceana, have used the higher figure to illustrate why Booker's legislation should pass. On Thursday, Oceana said it was sticking by the bill.
The Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act would "reinforce the status of the United States as a leader in shark conservation and remove our participation in the global fin market that kills millions of sharks every year," group spokeswoman Amelia Vorpahl said.
Fishermen think it's disingenuous to stick by a proposal based on flawed data, said Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, which represents some shark fishermen.
"The industry has been maligned, and they're doing it to pass legislation that harms people economically," he said.
The U.S. is a minor player in the worldwide fin trade, which centers on Hong Kong. The fins are used to make shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy.
More than a dozen U.S. states and territories have bans on the sale of fins, but the country still has hundreds of shark fishermen, and they're allowed to have a shark's fins removed for sale during processing on land. Sharks are valuable for their fins as well as their meat.