Texas is a place of paradox. Our state ranks number one in carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, yet our region also holds some of the greatest potential in solar- and wind-powered energy in America. We have one of the most business-friendly climates in the nation, but Texas also ranks near the top in children living in poverty and working poor with no medical insurance. And, while Texas is a coastal economy, our fishermen appreciate freedom from restrictions more than the economic and ecological value of preserving the biodiversity that sustains their businesses.
As apex predators at the top of the food chain, sharks are the regulators of the sea. Their presence helps maintain a balanced ecosystem and allows Gulf waters to flourish. However, the unsustainable trade in shark fins is leading to a staggering loss of sharks, which scientists now estimate are disappearing at a rate of 100 million per year.
The fishermen who engage in the inhumane practice of live shark finning are profiting mightily from Asia's growing appetite for shark fin soup. A dish for emperors dating back to the Ming dynasty, shark fin soup today sells for as much as $100 per bowl in China. Since shark fins are worth much more than the rest of the carcass (similar to elephant tusks or rhino horns), fishermen are able to maximize their catch by cutting off the fins from live sharks and throwing the bodies back into the sea.
While the U.S. already has a law against live shark finning, states are now passing legislation to attack the problem on the demand side in order to help close the global market for shark fins. Thanks to the leadership of seven states (and counting), the US market is starting to shrink. In passing this groundbreaking legislation to ban the shark fin trade, Texas would have become the first "red" state to lead on this issue. However, some powerful Texas fishing interest groups dealt sharks a further blow last week by derailing the legislation in the 11th hour.
Texas House Bill 852, which proposed to ban the sale, trade and consumption of shark fins, moved through the Texas House by a significant majority vote. However, the bill was blocked before reaching the Senate floor by two state senators due to pressure from recreational and commercial fishermen who claimed it could unfairly penalize them. Thanks to our myopia in placing political concerns over social, environmental or even long-term economic ones, Texas missed a historic opportunity this week to lead in ocean conservation, as Delaware, Hawaii, Washington, California, Oregon, Illinois and Maryland have successfully done.
As Davy Crockett once said, "Like it or not, as Texas goes, so goes the nation." The pride of our pioneers is partly what inspired me to seek an opportunity to use Texas' symbolic value and genuine influence as a coastal state to undertake this campaign with Shark Stewards and the Humane Society of the United States. At the same time, pride is also holding Texas back making from making common-sense policies that would benefit our citizens. Protecting the well-being of our people and the air and water that they rely on should be a greater source of pride than clinging fiercely to freedom from regulations at any cost.
The opposition of far right-wing legislators to common-sense regulation reminds me of the situation we face with gun control. When championing the individual rights of a few damages the health and lives of many, can we really call that freedom or justice? Nobody is saying that you can't own a gun. (My husband owns several, locked in a gun safe.) But teaching an unstable adolescent how to shoot your AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, for example, is unwise. Similarly, nobody is saying you can't catch a shark and sell it. But is it a good idea to continue supporting a practice that is responsible for fishing sharks to the point of extinction?
The Texas campaign to save the shark is not a front for a culture war being waged by East Coast liberals, as the fishermen would have us think it is. My husband, in fact, is a Republican who hunts and fishes, the pursuits of a typical Dallas lawyer. But Michael is also a conservative from the old school: a conservationist who respects the circle of life and the ecological balance of the natural capital that feeds, clothes and shelters us. I wish I could say the same for the legislators that run our government.
I have been trying to think of what to say to my children who helped with this campaign for the past year, lobbying alongside young Texans including 11-year-old animal advocate Sawyer Chandler, daughter of Emmy Award-winning actor Kyle Chandler. What is the lesson that this experience should teach them? Is it that the system is broken and they shouldn't waste their time on such fruitless endeavors? That doesn't sit right with me somehow. I still believe that it is important to try to change policies, although it may take several legislative sessions to get there.
In the meantime, we also need to work smarter at reform and reach citizens while their minds are still malleable enough to learn the value of keeping the natural world intact. We also need to learn to cross cultural lines. In following the conversations of fishermen I've spoken with since the decision, I've noticed that their chief complaint is that they believe they were not adequately consulted during the process. They did not feel they had a voice in shaping the policies that they claim would affect them. Perhaps there is room for more dialogue and consensus, but it will take building some bridges to get us there.
Where there is great injustice, there is also great opportunity. As I said in the beginning, Texas is paradoxical. We have abundant natural resources, strong individualism, and pioneering spirit. If we can direct the right blend of these qualities toward 21st century leadership, we could be a force. Until then, I will have to be content with working for change on the fringes -- and content knowing that in linking people together around the edges, a circle will eventually form.
This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.