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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Putting Teeth into Shark Protections

Christina Wilkie of The Hill reported yesterday that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is teaming up with the Discovery Channel during the hugely popular “Shark Week” in August to promote legislation cracking down on cruel and wasteful shark finning. There has been good news and bad news for sharks in recent months, and the renewed push for shark conservation could not come at a more critical time for these declining ocean predators.

Reef Whitetip Shark NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center A new Hawaii law took effect last week making the state the first to ban the sale and possession of shark fins, helping to dry up the demand for fins and remove the financial incentive for killing these creatures at sea. We are grateful to state Sen. Clayton Hee (D-Kahuku, La'ie, Ka'a'awa, Kane'ohe) for championing the pathbreaking bill, and to Gov. Linda Lingle (R) for signing it into law. Hawaiians revere this sacred animal, also known as “manō,” a protector of the oceans and Hawaii’s fisherman, and now they’ve set a standard for other states to follow.

Tens of millions of sharks are hauled up on the decks of fishing boats around the world every year, only to have their fins hacked off, often while they’re still alive. The mutilated sharks are then thrown back into the ocean, because the meat of most shark species is unpalatable and fishermen don’t want to use up freezer space by storing their bulky carcasses. The fins, on the other hand, fetch a very high price in East Asia, where they’re used to make shark fin soup.

Unfortunately, the nations participating in the fifteenth meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Doha, Qatar, in March had the opportunity to increase protections for imperiled shark species, but failed to do so. Palau and the United States had submitted proposals to give crucial protections to the hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks—two of the most over-exploited species for the international trade in fins—but the proposals were tanked under pressure from Japan, China and their allies.

While the public policy results have been mixed, some leaders in the fishing industry are reeling in progress for sharks on their own. Dozens of marinas in the United States, the Caribbean and the South Pacific have registered as Shark-Free Marinas, prohibiting the landing of any shark on their premises, and the organizers of the recent Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge off the southwest Florida coast opted for a completely catch-and-release tournament. It’s a welcome move away from the gruesome shark killing contests held up and down the U.S. shores.

Sen. Kerry and Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) have introduced the Shark Conservation Act to strengthen the enforcement of the federal shark finning law. Congress banned shark finning a decade ago, but enforcement is complex and there is a major loophole that currently permits a vessel to transport fins obtained illegally as long as the sharks were not finned aboard that vessel. The legislation to upgrade the law has passed the House of Representatives and the Senate Commerce Committee, and is awaiting action by the full Senate. Don’t wait for “Shark Week” to contact your two U.S. senators and tell them to pass the Shark Conservation Act, before it’s too late for sharks.

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