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New legislation places US at forefront of shark conservation

Last week the US Senate passed the Shark Conservation Act, which bolsters the prohibition of shark-finning in US waters and puts the US at the forefront of shark conservation.

Finning involves catching a live shark, cutting off its fins, then dumping it back into the water where it suffers a slow death of asphyxiation on the ocean floor. The fins are frozen or dried and then most are shipped to Asia where shark fin soup, a thin and gelatinous concoction, is a delicacy.

Globally, an estimated 73 million sharks are killed every year, primarily to support the shark fin trade. With 30 percent of all shark species threatened with extinction, the practice of finning is leading to crashes in many populations. For instance, scalloped hammerheads and dusky sharks off the eastern US coast have dropped by 80 percent since 1970. Even under strict regulations, it will take centuries for dusky shark populations to rebound to normal numbers.

Shark fins drying on the deck of a commercial fishing vessel in the South Pacific. Photo by

Sharks are one of the oldest groups of vertebrates and have persisted through many extinction events, including the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction which killed off the dinosaurs and the earlier Permian Extinction which resulted in the loss of 90-95% of life on earth. The fact that many species are dwindling points to the fact that humans are changing the world in magnitudes that haven’t been experienced for millions of years. For example, the great white shark which has been in existence for at least 16 million years is today listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Many shark species inhabit small areas and are extremely prone to overfishing. One of these is the smoothtooth blacktip shark which exists only in the Gulf of Aden, near Yemen and is caught as bycatch by local fisheries.

The Shark Conservation Act was introduced by Reps. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, and creates a comprehensive fins-attached policy for all shark catches in US waters by amending flaws in previous legislation and working to elicit similar measures in other countries.

The Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 took steps to stop finning in US waters, but many fishermen just used a loophole which allowed them to avoid detection by offloading fins onto other vessels. The Shark Conservation Act amends the previous attempt by closing those loopholes. In addition, it amends the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act by enacting a provision which would allow the US to identify countries which do not have comparable shark conservation measures in place.

The culmination of these efforts establishes the US as the leader of shark conservation and encourages other nations to follow suit.

“As our marine environment becomes more and more threatened, we need further safeguards to keep ecosystems and top predator populations healthy.” says Matt Rand, director of the Pew Environmental Group’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign. “Domestic protections alone will not save sharks. The U.S. should use this act to bolster its position when negotiating for increased international protections.”

However, while the bill makes great strides in banning the practice of finning, it imposes no national restriction on the sale of shark fins overseas. In fact, only one place in the world currently bans the sale of shark fins – Hawaii. In June, 2009 state lawmakers made it illegal to buy or sell shark fins anywhere in the islands.

“If people will pay money to get these animals, they will continue to be poached. And so it’s vital that the demand be reduced.” Peter Knight, Executive Director of WildAid, told

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