Washington – The U.S. Congress banned shark finning in all U.S. waters Tuesday, a victory environmental advocates are hoping sends a message to international regulators.
The law will require all sharks caught in U.S. waters to be landed with their fins still naturally attached, outlawing the practice in which fishers cut off sharks’ fins – the most lucrative part of the animal – and dump the mutilated shark back into the water to sink and eventually die.
Demand for shark fins has been growing in recent decades due to the expansion of the middle-class in China, where the fins are used in soup.
Previously, the U.S. had finning restrictions in force for its Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico waters. This legislation extends that ban to the Pacific.
The bill had been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2009 but the Senate’s approval did not come until Monday. Tuesday, the House approved the Senate’s version.
The law does not ban the sale of shark fins in the U.S., but, according to Matt Rand, director of the Pew Environment Group’s global shark conservation work, it “leaves the door open” for trade restrictions by the U.S. at some future point on countries that do not have comparable regulations on shark finning.
It also leaves open a small loophole for a specific shark fishery – smooth dogfish off North Carolina, along the U.S.’s southeastern coast.
But after three years of campaigning, activists are just happy the legislation finally made it to the finish line.
Between when the bill was first introduced in April 2008 and now, 145 million sharks have been killed, according to Pew Environment. Coupled with the fact that sharks are slow- growing and produce relatively few young since they mature later in life, this rate of harvest can be particularly harmful to shark populations.
Shark finning at sea allows fishing vessels to harvest many more fins at one time than they would be able to if they kept the rest of the shark carcass – and its usually much less valuable flesh – onboard. But the new U.S. law will prohibit U.S. vessels from having any shark fins on board that are not connected to the carcass, thus hopefully slowing the demise of shark populations and preventing what is seen as a cruel and wasteful practice.
Internationally, activists hope this law will propel the U.S. into a leadership position on shark conservation at international negotiations.
Rand said this policy gives the U.S. a mandate to push for similarly strong bans globally. “This is not only a federal policy but also mandates that the U.S. carries this torch to international negotiations and to other countries,” he said.
The new law caps a busy year for international shark conservation activists.
In March, delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, decided against proposals that would have prohibited or significantly curtailed international trade in eight species of shark.
That was despite the urgings of the U.S. and other countries, including the island nation of Palau, which in 2009 went further than the U.S. has gone and banned all fishing for sharks in its waters.
In October of this year, the Maldives followed Palau’s lead and banned shark fishing in its territorial waters. Both countries’ decisions were said to be motivated as much by the economic gains of tourism as by the ecological benefits of maintaining a healthy population of apex predators.
Studies have shown sharks to be worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tourism, as opposed to tens of dollars when caught.
“We’ve finally realised that sharks are worth more alive than dead,” said Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, a marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at the conservation group Oceana, in response to Tuesday’s U.S. legislation. “While shark fins and other shark products are valuable, the role sharks play in the marine ecosystem is priceless.”
These arguments may be starting to gain traction at international negotiations such as the annual meetings of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which is responsible for overseeing the conservation of tunas and species directly affected by tuna fishing – sharks are often caught as bycatch – in the Atlantic.
The most recent ICCAT meeting, in November, agreed to ban the taking of oceanic whitetip sharks by fishers and to significantly restrict that of hammerheads. Both species are highly prized for their fins and have seen their populations in key waters drop significantly in recent decades.
At the time, Pew Environment’s Rand credited the conservation victory to criticism policymakers received after CITES failed to restrict trade in the species.
Tuesday he said he hopes the U.S.’s new anti-finning policy helps raise the global profile of the need for shark conservation.
“The U.S. now has a national policy that fins must be naturally attached for all sharks caught and landed – an issue that has come up repeatedly in the last five years in international negotiations, including at ICCAT,” he told IPS, but “unfortunately [domestic policies] alone will not stop the decline of shark populations.”
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