Time Running Out for Sharks

November 1, 2010

Sharks are among the animals most likely to inspire fear in people—but it turns out people are much more dangerous to sharks than the other way around.  Out of the more than 400 living shark species, which range from large predators like the great white shark to small and largely harmless species like the nurse shark, close to half are listed as at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  Fishing, pollution, and other human activities have all taken their toll on sharks, so that the future for many is grim.  But a bill now moving through the US Congress could take at least some of the pressure off by protecting shark species in US waters.

The Shark Conservation Act of 2009 would outlaw shark finning—a practice contributing to the decline of shark species around the world.  Shark finning involves cutting the fins off sharks that have been caught at sea, then tossing the bodies back into the water.  When this fatal process is complete, the fins are sold for use in shark fin soup—an entrée sold for high prices at restaurants in certain Asian countries.  Around the world, about 100 to 200 million sharks of various species are killed by finning every year, some of them in US waters.

Though shark finning was officially banned in the US in the year 2000, the practice has continued because of loopholes that make the existing law difficult to enforce.  The Shark Conservation Act would close those loopholes by requiring any sharks caught and taken ashore in US waters must have their fins still attached to their bodies.  This would prevent fishing operations from illegally finning sharks and throwing the bodies back into the ocean. 

Though it does not outlaw other types of shark fishing, the proposed new law would end a type of shark fishing considered by many to be especially cruel, and which takes an unusually heavy toll on shark populations.  According to the ocean protection group Oceana, “The Shark Conservation Act would end shark finning in U.S. waters and make us world leaders in shark conservation.”

The bill passed the US House of Representatives last year, after being introduced by Representative Madeleine Bordallo (Democrat) of Guam.  The Shark Conservation Act has also been introduced in the Senate by Senator John Kerry (Democrat) of Massachusetts.  However, organizations with an interest in shark conservation are now concerned the bill may not be passed by the full Senate this year. 

Because it is a relatively minor bill that simply seeks to make it easier to enforce an existing ban on shark finning, the Shark Conservation Act would not normally be expected to be difficult to pass.  Yet after a difficult year grappling with major overhauls in healthcare and Wall Street reform policy, there is a danger the Senate will simply fail to make passing the Shark Conservation Act a priority.  If the Senate does not manage to pass it this year, the Shark Conservation will have to begin all over again in both the Senate and the House of Representatives next year. 

In an effort to pass the Shark Conservation Act before it is too late, marine conservation groups like Oceana, and animal welfare organizations like the Humane Society, are asking concerned citizens to contact their US senators and urge them to prioritize the legislation.  If the bill does pass, it will help not only declining shark populations, but entire marine ecosystems that depend on healthy predator populations to function.  This should in turn make it easier for marine habitats to adjust to other pressures like climate change, and is particularly important at a time when human activities are altering the oceans in sometime unpredictable ways.  Conserving top predators like sharks is just one way to help ensure ocean species a future as the planet continues to change.

Photo credit: Allan Lee

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