You've seen the teeth and fins -- it’s Shark Week again over at the Discovery Channel. And while SNL’s Andy Samberg has been getting viewers hyped, in California this year the excitement is accompanied by the global tidal wave of action to protect these fascinating, and critically important, creatures.
Hollywood movies aside, the truth is that humans are a far greater threat to sharks than they are to us. That’s why ocean advocates around the world are shining a spotlight on a deadly practice that is causing shark populations to plummet worldwide: shark finning.
Sharks are one of our oceans' top predators, keeping the entire ecosystem balanced and in check. They are an essential component of the food web, and are vital to the health of our oceans. Studies have shown that reduction in one species can have detrimental, long-lasting effects on not only other species, but on entire ecosystems and local and regional economies.
Animals at the top of the food chain, such as sharks, have few natural predators, are slow to mature, and have very few young. Some sharks take up to 25 years to reach sexual maturity, have a long gestation period (upwards of a year), and only have a few offspring in the end. All together, that means that sharks are extremely sensitive to fishing pressures, and are slow to recover from overfishing.
The numbers speak for themselves. Many shark species have declined in population by more than 90% in the last 50 years. Some species may have declined by as much as 97-99% in the last 35 years. In other words, as few as 1 out of 100 may be left of some species.
While sharks are often caught accidentally (called by-catch), a global market exists for shark fins, the main ingredient in shark fin soup. Shark fins can fetch upwards $600 a pound, putting this critical species at the hands of human profit seeking.
The demand for shark fins is what drives almost all shark deaths. And because shark meat isn’t generally consumed, after their fins are cut off, sharks are usually thrown back into the water. Unable to swim and bleeding to death, they suffer a slow and torturous death.
Anyone who has seen videos or photos of shark finning knows that it is an absolutely cruel and horrific practice. Not only is it barbaric, but it is terribly unsustainable.
The good news is that governments around the world are taking action to protect sharks. Tourism-based economies know well that sharks are often worth more alive than dead. Sharks are not only valuable in keeping ecosystems healthy, but also because of the growing trend in shark-viewing tourism. Kill the sharks and you kill the tourism, sacrificing jobs for thousands of people in coastal communities.
Photo of William Winram with a tiger shark courtesy of Fred Buyle nektos.net
In fact, the Pew Environment Group found that shark-related tourism contributes $18 million to the economy in Palau annually, brought in $110 million to the Thai economy in 2003, and has contributed $800 million to the Bahamian economy. In 2006, up to 25 percent of travel expenses from visitors to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia was attributed to shark tourism.
And while sadly up to 73 million sharks are killed every year just for their fins, we’ve seen some good news for sharks lately. Many states and nations around the world are taking bold action to stop the wasteful “finning” of sharks. Here are just a few highlights from this last year:
- The Chilean National Congress just passed legislation that completely bans shark finning in Chilean waters. Chile had previously become a major exporter of shark fins that are used for soup.
- In July, the Bahamas joined Honduras, the Maldives and Palau in outlawing shark fishing. It is better in the Bahamas!
- In January 2010, Hawaiian State Senator Clayton Hee blazed a new path in the Unites States by introducing SB 2169, a bill that would ban the sale, possession, and distribution of shark fins in the State of Hawaii. After numerous amendments, the SB 2169 received overwhelming support, passing unanimously in the Hawaii Senate (25-0) and receiving only one single vote of opposition (50-1) in the House of Representatives.
- The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was the next to take up the battle with House Bill 17-94. The Bill passed unanimously in both houses (House: 17-0; Senate: 8-0), and was signed into law on 27 January 2011. Guam's legislature passed its version of the ban with Bill 44-31, voting unanimously (15-0), and Governor Eddie Calvo signed the bill into law on March 9, 2011.
- In the contiguous 48, Washington Senate Bill SB 5688 blazed through both houses, with the Senate's unanimous support (47-0), and near unanimity in the House (95-1). We applaud Washington State as their effort to ban shark fins has now been signed into law.
- Oregon's version of the Bill, HB 2838, enjoyed unanimous acceptance in its House of Representatives (44-0), as well as in its Senate (30-0). A second vote in the House after amendments were made had a similar positive result (passing 58-1).
The votes are in and the answer is clear: support is overwhelming and nearly unequivocal for banning the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning.
So now we take the battle to California with Assembly Bill 376. You’d think the protection of sharks would be a shoo-in here, but I have to confess that there have been a few political hiccups in my Golden State. Some suggest this is because there are more substantial populations of Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Southern California, a population group among which shark fin soup is popular. As an American of Asian descent, I myself think the opposition is using this claim as a divisive distraction.
While it is understandable that some people are resistant to change, we’ve seen people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds across California engage in the fight to protect sharks as part of the AB 376 legislative effort.
And awareness is an ongoing issue. COARE finds that many people who enjoy shark fin soup simply do not know 1) where shark fins come from, 2) the impact finning has on the environment, or 3) the harmful effects it might have on their health (thanks to methyl mercury and other accumulated toxins). If more people understood these things, and the critical role that sharks play in the ocean, I’d like to believe they would make the correct choice with little hesitation.
In fact, more people understand this issue in California than you might think. A poll conducted in California two weeks before the introduction of AB 376 found that the vast majority of California voters (82%) were concerned about the impact of shark finning. The numbers were even higher for Chinese-American voters (86%). 76 percent of all those surveyed, and 70 percent of the Chinese-Americans surveyed, supported a statewide ban on shark fins. Among Chinese-Americans, only 18 percent of voters opposed the ban and 12 percent expressed no opinion.
And while we know that Hollywood has promulgated a false image of sharks as man-eating monsters, with over-sensationalized and inaccurate portrayals such as in JAWS, a new cast of celebrities and entertainment moguls is coming forward to help correct these myths.
Just read this letter -- from Leonardo Di Caprio, Yao Ming, Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Anthony Keidis, Flea, Scarlett Johansson, Ian Somerhalder, and many more -- supporting California’s Assembly Bill 376 which would protect sharks from being killed just for their fins.
If you live in California, take a moment to send your own message to our state representatives. And plan a trip to visit the Aquarium of the Bay’s Shark Finning Exhibit: No Fins, No Future to meet just a few of the sharks that are worth saving every day, all year long.
Together with states and nations around the world, we can take a big bite out of this cruel, deadly practice and protect sharks for generations to come.
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