HONOLULU — The boats arrive at the dock with shark fins hanging from the rigging like laundry on a clothesline.
Before the boat is even tied up, crewmen are selling the fins to men clutching six-packs of beer and handfuls of cash. Lately, they've been getting up to $32 a pound.
Some fins wind up in local markets in a refrigerated case, sold to make soup--a thousand-year-old Asian delicacy. Others are shipped straight to Asia, where prices have hit $256 for a pound of dried and processed fin.
In Hawaii, where the economy lags behind much of the nation, $30 million worth of shark fins change hands annually at the docks, usually in cash-only transactions. Traditionally, the money goes to the crew, not the boat owner.
"Hawaii seems to be 'Fin Central,' " said Howard Deese, a marine programs specialist with the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. "In this economy, everything helps."
But the leftovers from this industry are heating up federal discussions over finning.
What the arriving boats leave behind in the waters off Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands are the carcasses of hundreds of thousands of finned sharks, mostly blues that are incidentally caught by fishermen chasing swordfish and tuna.
Because the markets for shark meat, skin and cartilage are small, fishermen simply throw the body overboard--sometimes still alive--after they cut off its fins. That finless shark is eaten by another, bleeds to death or drowns.
Many conservation groups consider that cruel, wasteful and contradictory to American fisheries policy in most other oceans of the world.
Shark finning is banned in federal waters of the Atlantic Ocean--where sharks have been overfished--and is opposed by U.S. representatives to international fisheries organizations. Yet it's still allowed in the Pacific.
"This is a glaring problem that's inconsistent with U.S. policy everywhere on sharks," said Sonja Fordham, a shark specialist with the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington.
"There are a million environmental groups ready to pounce on this."
That has the attention of federal fisheries managers in the western Pacific. Even though some believe finning isn't an issue, they recognize that the practice looks bad.
"It's a perception issue," said Michael Laurs, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory. "Even if we demonstrate that there's no conservation problem, there's going to be a large voice coming from a number of groups saying there shouldn't be a shark fishery."
NMFS and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, responsible for fisheries in federal waters here, have launched efforts to quantify the industry, assess shark populations and seek alternative markets for shark products.
What they start with are federal statistics showing that the Asian hankering for shark fins has caused the regional catch to skyrocket.
From 1991 to 1996, as the price of fins doubled, the shark catch reported at Hawaii's docks jumped 22-fold: from an estimated 200,000 pounds to 4.5 million pounds, according to the council.
About 99% of those sharks were used just for their fins, so the catch weights are estimated based on the size of the fins.
And about 95% of those finned sharks were blue sharks, a species of up to 13 feet and 400 pounds that's considered harmless to humans.
Blues wind up on fishing vessels because they live in the same waters as swordfish and tuna, two prime targets of the Pacific commercial fishing industry. The fish typically are caught on lines stretching across 80 miles of sea and dangling thousands of hooks.
The council last year commissioned an overview of world agencies collecting data on Pacific sharks. But that study said reliable fisheries statistics for specific shark species were rare throughout the Pacific Rim.
"Unfortunately, we know very little about the populations of blue sharks," said Charles Karnella, administrator of the NMFS Pacific Islands Area Office in Honolulu.
The council also will study whether alternative markets can be developed for shark products, such as using the skin for leather goods and promoting the use of cartilage and the liver for alternative remedies.
Some people believe that shark cartilage will cure cancer, although there is no medical evidence to support that.
"We would like to see whatever is killed brought in to eat or utilized in some way rather than thrown away," Deese said. "There's an economic value to be gained from it."
For now, federal officials are not planning to curb the catch of sharks or their finning. Council Chairman James Cook, who also owns several fishing vessels, believes finning should be stopped because it's wasteful and dangerous to fishermen, but said the council has to focus on science.
"The council looks at this the same way they look at a tuna," he said. "It is a fishery and the shark is a fish."