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2011-01-13

Bill gives victory for sharks in US

By Jake Levenson

Imagine an umbrella tree on the edge of the Serengeti. In its shade rests a lion. Now, imagine drawing closer. Near enough to see that the lion is brutally injured, its feet hacked away to be sold as a luxury item in some foreign market. Because the rest of the lion is essentially worthless, the hunters left the beast alive, but fatally wounded. Unable to move, the lion will starve.
Not a nice image, is it?
Unpleasant. Even gruesome. Thankfully, also entirely imaginary. Yet, this is an all-too-real scenario for an estimated 38 million sharks every year. Victims of a cruel practice known as shark finning, they are pulled from the ocean with hooks and nets. Their fins are sliced off. Then - helpless - they are dumped back into the water. There, the finless sharks will die.
You see, a finless shark can’t swim. And, almost all sharks must swim in order to breathe; constant motion keeps water moving over their gills, which is how sharks extract oxygen from the sea. Without fins, they can’t swim. Without fins, they can’t breathe. Without fins, they die.
But, why should we care?
Sharks are more than just fodder for grisly headlines and over-the-top horror flicks. They are the Kings of the Sea. Without sharks, the oceans simply don’t work. As top predators, sharks control populations of fishes and other sea creatures, ensuring that they won’t over-graze any one patch of algae or coral. Sharks - like lions, tigers and other predators - reduce the risk of disease by preying on the old and the sick. Without sharks, healthy ocean ecosystems begin to collapse quickly.
They’ve ruled the oceans for more than 450 million years, yet some shark species might not survive the next decade. Shark populations are in a nose-dive around the world, and shark finning is a big part of the problem. More than 70 million sharks are caught every year by commercial fishers, either for their fins or as bycatch - accidental and unwanted - in other fisheries. The Kings of the Sea are disappearing, victims of callousness and overfishing.
Shark finning serves just one purpose: shark fin soup. A traditional delicacy in China, shark fin soup has historically been reserved for the richest of the rich.
But, the rise of China’s middle class has fueled overwhelming demand for a soup that is more important as a status symbol than as a food item. As demand for shark fin soup increases, so does fishing pressure on wild sharks.
Shark finning is practiced around the world. Most of the severed fins are shipped to China and Hong Kong.
Yet because of the efforts by many dedicated IFAW supporters, sharks are swimming safer in US waters than ever before.
The U.S. Congress passed a landmark shark conservation bill on December 21, 2010. The bill, sponsored by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, requires all shark fishing boats to land with full shark carcasses - they may no longer land with just a catch of shark fins, the fins must still be attached to the shark’s bodies.
The rule will also apply to any non-fishing boats that may be transporting a catch of sharks. This is a big deal as shark carcasses take up much more space than the fins alone, and the carcasses must be cold stored on a fishing boat.
With this one simple change, the United States has made shark finning an uneconomical choice in their waters. These new restrictions will curtail shark finning along, especially along the United States’ Pacific coast.
This progress may be cause for celebration, but it is certainly not a reason to drop the issue of shark conservation. Shark finning continues elsewhere in the world, and IFAW is already working to expand anti-finning legislation to the EU.
Yet, shark finning is far from the only threat facing sharks today. Climate change, overfishing and bycatch may represent equally important risks.
And, no one knows how the world’s biggest oil spill will affect the world’s largest fish - the whale shark - in the Gulf of Mexico. This is why we are tackling shark conservation projects from India to the Gulf of Mexico. Because, if the Kings of the Sea are suffering, then the seas are suffering as well.