The practice of slicing fins off live sharks and throwing them back into the water to bleed to death took a big hit yesterday when a key Senate committee passed a bill that would end any trade of shark fins in the United States.
The Senate Commerce Committee passed the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act, S. 793, introduced by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., on a voice vote, setting the stage for possible floor action on the measure soon. A companion bill moving in the House, H.R. 1456, has nearly 100 cosponsors, and that measure is led by Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, D-Northern Mariana Islands.
Although the practice of shark finning is prohibited in our waters, the United States still imports shark fins from countries that do not prohibit finning. As many as 73 million sharks die each year because of finning, and it is a leading contributor to the decline of shark populations worldwide. According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one-fourth of shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. The HSUS has helped enact bans on the shark fin trade in 11 states, including major coastal states like California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas.
“What we have realized about ivory is that in order to stop the ongoing slaughter of elephants, we need to completely shut down ivory markets and take away the economic incentive for killing the elephants. And the United States and other countries are now taking aggressive steps to do just that,” said Senator Booker, in his statement to the committee. “The same holds true for sharks. Banning the trade in shark fins is the only way to shut down the global market for fins and take away the economic incentive to kill sharks for their fins.”
The shark finning industry itself is widespread and global, with 80 shark-catching countries sending fins to Hong Kong and China where they are processed and re-exported to countries around the world, including the United States. The United States is the world’s ninth largest importer of shark fins, and the world’s 12th largest exporter, by dollar value. Detractors of S.793 claim that cracking down on finning in the United States will not help the situation, because the bulk of the consumption is in China or other places in Asia. But the United States cannot stand as a credible leader for shark conservation while we import shark fins from China and other countries.
Our global affiliate Humane Society International, along with other animal welfare and conservation groups, is working globally on shark fin and ivory demand reduction campaigns. Research shows a drop in consumption and growing awareness in China and Hong Kong about the cruelty involved in shark finning. China’s national carrier, Air China, and other major airlines have prohibited the transport of shark fins on their planes. These are the kinds of steps that will prove decisive over time.
Sharks are a keystone species, crucial to the balance of the marine ecosystems that they inhabit. They mature slowly and produce few young. Once their population is depleted worldwide, it will take decades, if not longer, for some species to recover. Sharks are also an important revenue source for ecotourism ventures in many coastal communities. A study released by Oceana found that shark-related diving generated over $221 million for Florida in 2016. In stark contrast, the U.S. exported shark fins worth only $1.03 million in 2015.
Clearly, sharks are worth much more alive than in a bowl of soup. It is now up to Congress to act swiftly on the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act, sending a clear message to everyone involved in this bloody enterprise: the United States will not prop up an industry that is cruel, wasteful, and causes the deaths of tens of millions of some of our ocean’s most vital animals every year.