Animal Rights

Congress Must Close Loopholes on Cruel Shark Finning

| by Mat Thomas

Every year, the world’s fishermen hack off the dorsal fins of more than 100 million living sharks and dump their dismembered bodies back into the sea, leaving these massive fish to suffer an agonizing death that can take days. Some die from starvation, while others are slowly devoured by other predators, or simply drown because they cannot swim and sharks must remain in constant motion to keep oxygenated water flowing through their gills.

The driving force behind this aquatic atrocity is the growing global appetite for shark’s find soup, a high-priced delicacy that is most popular in China, Japan, and other far-east Asian nations. Shark fins fetch about $200 per pound, while shark meat only sells for about one-tenth that price. So it is economically much more efficient for fishing companies to sharks’ fins off and throw their mutilated bodies overboard because ships can only fit so much flesh in their refrigerated holds on long journeys out at sea.

The impact of this inhumane practice has been devastating to fragile oceanic ecosystems. Coupled with other slash-and-burn fishing methods like long-line fishing, shark finning has caused a 90 percent decline in worldwide shark populations over the last half century. And because sharks are the top apex predators of the deep, their dramatic disappearance has led to radically increased numbers of rays and skates, which devour shellfish at an unsustainable rate.

Fortunately, some people are taking effective action to stop the seafood industry’s wave of wanton destruction. When the Goldman Environmental Prize (widely considered the “Nobel” of environmental awards) recently recognized sea turtle biologist Randall Arauz, founder of the non-profit organization Pretoma, for his successful efforts to end shark finning in Costa Rica, the campaign against this abominable animal abuse achieved new levels of international awareness. His undercover video documentation of a vessel killing 30,000 sharks for 33 tons of shark fins ultimately led to the banning of shark finning in his native country, formerly the third largest exporter of shark meat, and the development in 2006 of legalese that has become the standard guideline for countries around the world seeking to follow suit. The Goldman Prize video documentary about Arauz rightly proclaims that he “has taken Costa Rica from being a leader in shark finning to being a global leader in shark preservation.”

Momentum to prohibit shark finning by the U.S. fishing fleet is proceeding apace here, as well. Congress banned shark finning in 2000, but ships in the Pacific Ocean are still allowed to bring shark fins to market as long as they weigh less than five percent of sharks’ “dressed” weight (i.e., the carcass minus its head and innards). In March 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill to make Pacific fisheries comply with the same rules as those operating in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and passage of a Senate companion bill entitled the Shark Conservation Act (S. 850) is all that’s needed to make it the law of the land (and sea).

Of the world’s nearly 200 countries, only 33 have instituted regulations against shark finning. While the U.S. fishing fleet accounts for only a small percentage of the global finning trade, passage of the Shark Conservation Act would give the Obama Administration’s enthusiastic efforts to ban it internationally more bite because our own laws would serve as a model for other nations to follow.

Call your two U.S. Senators and politely ask them to support and co-sponsor the Shark Conservation Act (S. 850). Then follow up by emailing your elected officials using the Action Alert provided by the Humane Society of the United States. For maximum effectiveness, customize the subject line and message body to make sure your memo stands out.