It’s been a big couple of months for sharks. Last week -- in-part due to the hard work of NRDC's Chicago team -- a fifth U.S. state took a strong stand to protect sharks when Illinois governor Pat Quinn signed into law HB 4119, banning the sale, trade, distribution or possession of shark fins in the Prairie State. Although the nearest ocean is many miles from downtown Chicago, by passing this law, Illinois has joined Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and California in ending their contribution to the demand for shark fin. The demand for shark fins, and the exorbitant prices paid for them, drive the unsustainable practice of finning -- cutting off sharks’ fins and discarding the rest of the animal’s body – and the killing of between 26-73 million sharks every year.
More landmark news came from the Chinese government: in an effort to protect endangered shark populations and reduce government spending, shark fin soup will no longer be served at official banquet and government functions. It’s estimated that 95 percent of the annual harvest of shark fin is consumed on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and most fins are served at special occasions such as banquets. So this official decree is likely to have significant and symbolic affects on shark conservation efforts. There is also reportedly a growing movement to ban the shark fin trade in Singapore. And last week, Malaysia’s Berjaya Hotels and Resort group joined Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotel and the Peninsula Hotels Group in committing to stop serving shark fin.
Meanwhile, in the western hemisphere, Venezuela has become the final country in the Americas to ban finning in its waters. But Venezuelan lawmakers didn’t stop there. They also outlawed all commercial shark fishing in the Los Roques and Las Aves archipelagos, which are key pupping grounds for many shark species in the Caribbean. To the North, a bill was introduced in April in British Colombia to require labeling of imported sharks with their species and origin. The bill would also require that all shark meat sold in Canada carry a label indicating the danger of mercury contamination, which is particularly high in fish like shark that are at the top of the food chain.
Unfortunately, the last few months have also seen many trouble reports:
- Great Whites sharks are being slaughtered for their fins and jaws, which fetch a hefty price, in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and off South Africa;
- Community patrols in Indonesia struggle to stop shark poachers from pillaging sharks from protected waters;
- A year after the creation of a Honduras shark sanctuary, the government continues to confiscate and burn hundreds of fins caught by poachers;
- Costa Rican authorities also continue to crackdown on finning; and
- The shark fin trade is still going strong at huge international ports such as Dubai's Deira Fish Market; and An Phu port in Vietnam (warning, graphic photos).
New scientific information continues to emerge, reminding us how little we know about these ancient creatures, their importance to ocean ecosystems, and their vulnerability to human impacts. A new genetic study revealed 79 potentially new shark species, with a number of these new species closely resembling already-identified species. This raises serious conservation concerns, because populations of species may be even smaller and more fragile than previously thought.
Another new study, published in the journal Conservation Biology, used underwater surveys to make the first scientific estimates of the loss of Pacific reef sharks killed for their fins or as accidental, wasted “bycatch”. Scientists found that as many as 90% of original populations had been killed around populated islands, such as Hawaii and American Samoa.
This information, and the strength of the global trade in fins, is a stark reminder that all who care about the health of the world’s oceans need to take a stand in protecting sharks: refuse to eat shark fins and call on governments and businesses to end the trade in fins.
Photo by Wyland, from Flickr, USFWS Headquarters
This blog originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.