05/19/2010 10:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No More Shark Fin Soup on Menus!

I was heartened today to learn that Hawaii seeks to ban the harvesting of shark fins in a bill that passed both House and Senate. The governor could always veto the bill but it is unlikely. However, what I would like to see is shark fin soup taken off the menu of reputable restaurants. Royal Gardens, a top dim sum establishment in Honolulu, just took it off their menu. Why the Aman Summer Palace in Beijing still has it on theirs is shocking, considering their sensitivity to the environment in everything else they do.

Until Chinese people -- who are inexplicably interested in paying big bucks for something that tastes like egg drop soup -- stop eating it, no amount of shouting from the rooftops will make any difference. But cutting off the supply might.

And as much as younger people in China are just saying no (I was just in Beijing and sat with Bruno Wu, media mogul and husband of the "Oprah of China" who said his son won't touch it), these numbers are being overwhelmed by the emerging middle class, who still demand it due to its status.

Of the 307 shark species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 50 are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, but only the white, whale and basking sharks are protected internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). (The convention recently met and adjourned without providing any trade protections whatsoever for severely depleted Atlantic bluefin tuna and four vulnerable species of sharks: scalloped hammerhead, oceanic white tip, porbeagle and spiny dogfish). Sharks now represent the greatest percentage of threatened marine species on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Why did this happen?

Here's why:

At the CITES convention in early March, the night before the vote on a ban on bluefin tuna (a species almost sure to be extinct within 20 years if harvests are continued), Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of the most fearless explorers and respected researchers of the oceans, spoke to delegates at an event honoring the conservation efforts of Palau and the Maldives (both of which benefit from scuba diving resort activity). She emphasized the critical state of tuna, sharks, and all aquatic beings, stating: "We have ten years, no more, it is happening right now in our time. If we do nothing and continue the way we are, it will be all over. More and more will simply vanish. And it will be our fault."

At the exact time that Dr. Earle was appealing for rationality, Japan's embassy was hosting an impromptu bluefin sushi and sake party for the other delegates of poorer nations in a last-minute attempt to determine the outcome.

The tuna proposal was defeated the following day. We already have evidence that Mitsubishi are on a mission to fish out the remaining bluefin tuna until the population collapses, and ultimately control their price.

True to form, the night before proposals to protect sharks were to be voted on, Japan hosted a second lavish party, this time serving shark fin soup. The outcome? Not one species of shark under review received protections at CITES.

The Shark Conservation Act of 2009 (S. 850) currently on the Senate floor would require that sharks be landed with their fins still attached. This measure would solve enforcement issues and facilitate better data collection for use in stock assessments and quota monitoring. S. 850 also closes a loophole on the transfer of fins at sea, which allowed some bad actors to circumvent the current law. Additionally, the bill allows the U.S. to take actions against countries that have weaker protections for sharks. I urge you to support S. 850, the Shark Conservation Act.

The finish line for passing the Shark Conservation Act is close, but we are not there yet. The full Senate now must now vote on shark protections and your Senators need to hear from you. Please sign this important petition as soon as possible. China will survive just swimmingly without shark fin soup!

As apex predators, sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems, serving as an indicator of ocean health. Despite their fearsome reputation, sharks are slow-growing, late-maturing, long-lived and give birth to few young, making them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation. The loss of sharks will have devastating and unpredictable consequences for ocean ecosystems.

In 2009, actress January Jones (Mad Men) joined Oceana as the spokesperson for our shark campaign. Watch her video.

What Oceana really could use is a spokesperson from China!! Any ideas?
photo by Tim Calver