Shark-Saving Legislation Proposed During Discovery’s “Shark Week”

Just in time for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, a team of United States Senators, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), has introduced legislation seeking to eliminate U.S. involvement in the global shark fin market.

The bipartisan Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016 aims to protect important shark populations by banning the commercial trade of fins in the United States and by increasing enforcement measures to the existing finning ban. The Senators hope these actions will provide a platform from which the United States can advocate for comprehensive global measures in the future.

The move to ban domestic shark finning began when President Bill Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000, which made it illegal for United States fishermen to engage in shark finning – but left a significant loophole by not discussing fin trading specifically. Since then, eleven states and three U.S. territories – including Massachusetts –have implemented comprehensive finning bans that close this loophole.

What is Shark Finning?

Shark finning is a brutal practice that occurs when the fins of a shark are cut from the animal and kept for sale while the rest of the shark is tossed back in the water, incapacitated and left to die or be eaten by a predator.

The fins are particularly valued for medicinal purposes as well as for the key ingredient of shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy and status symbol. The price for a single bowl of soup can cost up to $100, making the global fin trade highly profitable despite being increasingly controversial.

At Risk from a Daunting Predator: Humans

All shark species, including the highly endangered scalloped hammerhead, are at risk of falling prey to shark finning. To make matters worse, recent estimates say global shark populations are decreasing at a rate of between 6.4 to 7.9 percent annually. This startling decline is largely caused by finning, overfishing, and from the animals being accidentally caught as bycatch.

Massachusetts is among the U.S. states advocating against shark finning, where there has been a heightened interest in shark research and conservation in part due to the return of great white sharks during recent years.

Groups like the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have been studying New England’s sharks for decades. The Massachusetts Shark Research Program’s shark-tagging research recently resurfaced in the news with the return of Scratchy, the Great White Shark, to Cape Cod’s shores.

Civic Interest in New England

During his tenure as a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts, Secretary John Kerry was a vocal supporter of the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, signed into law in 2011. The act gained bipartisan support and mandated that shark landings must be brought to shore with fins attached, thereby strengthening the Shark Finning Prohibition Act.

And in 2014, nine-year-old Sean Lesniak wrote to his State Representative, David M. Nangle, with a simple request: to allow him to share his passion for sharks with the Massachusetts House and tell them why they were worth saving. In doing so, Lesniak lent his young voice to a long-running conversation about why the Bay State should protect its marine resources. Gaining bipartisan support, the bill successfully banned the possession and sale of shark fins, and was signed by Governor Deval Patrick in July 2014.

Lesniak’s story is a good reminder that civic engagement and education are important conservation tools, and that when used effectively, can help ensure that shark populations are saved – and that events like Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

With the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016, the United States Senate has the opportunity to elevate global awareness of this issue and make shark conservation a more concrete reality. Contact your Senator today to ask him or her to support this legislation.

 

 

Protecting Sharks

It’s been a good summer for shark conservation. On July 24th, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill banning the possession and sale of shark fins in the state. While the 2010 Shark Conservation Act passed by Congress had prohibited shark finning and required sharks harvested in state waters to be brought to shore whole, it did not eliminate the market for imported shark fins in the U.S., where shark fin soup is sometimes priced at $100. With Massachusetts’ ban in place, a total of nine U.S. states and three U.S. territories have now joined in efforts to eliminate finning altogether.

Last month, scalloped hammerheads made national news when the species became the first shark to be placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List. The scalloped hammerhead is threatened by the commercial fishery for its fins—the sharks are highly valued in the fin trade because of their fin size and high fin ray count. They are also caught as bycatch by offshore longlines and gillnets.

This shark is found in warm and temperate waters across the globe; four scalloped hammerhead shark populations were placed on the endangered species list. The Eastern Atlantic and Eastern Pacific scalloped hammerheads were listed as “endangered,” and the Central & Southwest Atlantic and Indo-West Pacific scalloped hammerheads were listed as “threatened.” This listing prohibits the catch, sale, and trade of scalloped hammerheads in the United States.

These actions are a win for shark conservation, and they build on other state and federal protections for the approximately 400 shark species in the world, about 40 of which are found in U.S. waters. In New England, there are at least 26 shark species protected by state catch limits, size minimums, types of equipment permitted for use or a prohibition against their harvest. Some of the popularly-known protected sharks that cannot be harvested in New England include the great white (Carcharodon carcharia), basking (Cetorhinus maximus), longfin mako (Isurus paucus), and sand tiger shark (Carcharias Taurus).

Why protect the feared kings of the sea? Well, first of all, they’re just cool, and as this video shows, they’re not as dangerous as most people think.

Sharks also play a critical ecological role as the ocean’s apex predators.

Unfortunately, sharks take a relatively long time to grow to maturity, produce few offspring, depend on wide swaths of intact ocean habitat, and are very sensitive to ecosystem changes.  All of that means they’re exremely vulnerable to the effects of overfishing and habitat loss. Nearly half of the shark and ray species assessed by scientists for the International Union for Conservation of Nature are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, and around 100 million sharks are killed every year in commercial fisheries.

So while there have been some steps in the right direction, there’s still plenty more we can do to protect these great ocean fish, from research to habitat protection to improved fisheries management and bycatch reduction. The health of our marine ecosystems depends on it.

Image credit: Daniel Kwok, Flickr.