05/09/2011 05:15 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2011

73 Million Sharks Need Your Help

For decades sharks have been characterized as villains and the enemies of humanity in TV and film, creating a stereotype that has unjustly resulted in years of apathy about their survival.

Yet despite the fact that sharks are the kings of the sea -- one of the ocean's top predator species -- each year, more than 73 million sharks die so that their fins may be harvested for shark fin soup.

In recent years the demand for shark fin soup has skyrocketed, as the dish -- once reserved as a delicacy for the Chinese elite -- has become more commonplace. As a result, shark finning has become extremely lucrative, and unfortunately for sharks, very common.

Shark finning is the practice of cutting off a shark's fins and dumping the remainder of the animal -- usually still alive -- to die a slow death as they sink to the bottom of the ocean. The fins are sold at extremely high prices, but there is almost no market for the rest of the animal. Just as African elephants are killed by poachers for no other reason than their ivory tusks, some 73 million sharks are killed each year for no other reason than their fins. It is a cruel and wasteful practice; fins are less than 5% of a shark's body.

Shark finning is also a big problem for the health of our oceans. Like other high-level predators such as big cats and wild dogs of Africa, sharks are essential to keeping the ocean ecosystem in balance because they regulate the populations of lower level predators and herbivores. Without sharks, other marine lifecycles will be disrupted.

The truth is, this fantastic predator is no match for manmade nets, snares and harpoons, which serve to spear and entangle the sharks while their fins are harvested. Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years, but even though as a species they have survived five separate mass extinctions and they range the world over -- from the frigid water to the tropics, from sea level down to miles beneath the surface -- the demand for shark fins has reduced some shark populations by more than 90%.

Outside of Asia, California is the largest market for shark fins in the world, and most of the fins are imported through Los Angeles and San Diego. Many of the fins entering the U.S. come from countries contributing to the systematic decimation of many shark species, and some are even caught illegally in U.S. waters and then later legally sold back to U.S. consumers.

Following the lead of Hawaii, which banned the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins, California is currently considering similar legislation, as are Oregon and Washington. These state laws are essential because they will go further to protect sharks than the current federal law which bans the practice of selling or trading shark fins, but allows for the possession of fins, leading to the ability to continue making and profiting from shark fin soup.

But even if other countries start to ban or regulate shark finning, the only way to stop this wasteful practice is by making it illegal to sell, trade, or possess shark fins. The bill California is considering (AB 376) will do just that and will also reduce the demand for the product -- and reduce the practice of shark finning in places where it is still allowed.

One way or another, shark finning will probably end soon: either because shark populations around the world are wiped out, or because we choose to stop this unsustainable and cruel practice. But with shark populations dwindling there's no time to waste: we need to make our voices heard and end this inhumane practice before it's too late. If you live in California, please tell your state assemblymember to help stop deadly shark finning.

Originally appeared in OnEarth Magazine.