08/08/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

Turning the Tide on Shark Finning

We're halfway through Shark Week, and many of you have already taken a break from watching the country's first-ever late-night shark talk show and taken actions to save the sharks in the Great Barrier Reef. You may also have learned about the connection between the decline of the shark population and the burning and dredging of more coal near their sensitive habitats.

Sadly, there's another way that humans are putting sharks in danger -- shark finning. Unfair trade could exacerbate these and other problems, putting some sharks on a fast track to extinction.

Imagine if a segment on Shark Week showed someone cutting off a part of a fish, then throwing it back to the sea to bleed to death or fall prey to another sea creature. Think that would fly on Discovery? It might not be featured on prime-time television, but it's regrettably a huge business. Fishermen around the globe perpetrate this practice known as "finning" on millions of sharks each year. Restaurants then put the fins, void of flavor and nutrition, into an expensive soup. Simply put, shark finning has precipitated the death and decline of an important player in our ecosystem.

The shark fin trade has boomed in the past half century and significantly depleted shark species. Among approximately a dozen of the most common sharks in the fin trade, each faces extinction today. Promisingly, more states, countries and international communities are working together to eradicate this practice. New York, one of the largest markets for shark fins outside of Asia, recently joined seven U.S. states in passing laws that ban the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins. Additionally, nine Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and nearly 50 countries or states have adopted provisions to regulate, if not ban, the practice of shark finning. The United States has seen gains to protect sharks when President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act in 2011.

Policies that ban shark finning are critical to saving shark species from extinction. So when the U.S. decides to engage in trade with other nations, it's particularly vital to uphold and strengthen these significant measures. The U.S. is currently in talks with eleven other Pacific Rim nations to develop the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Because shark populations in the Pacific Rim, such as the Oceanic Whitetip, are declining precipitously, sharks and shark finning are on the negotiating table in this trade pact.

Though drafts of the trade pact are not being released to the public, we understand that the United States is pushing a strong conservation proposal that includes specific obligations to conserve shark populations, including actions to deter shark-finning practices. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. proposal - which is, crucially, legally binding and enforceable - has thus far met strong resistance from other countries in the trade pact and risks being rolled back, further threatening the shark population.

Moreover, while the U.S. is advancing a very strong conservation proposal in the environment chapter of the pact, it is at the same time pushing other proposals that would be extremely damaging to our environment, climate, and, therefore, to sharks. The U.S. investment chapter proposal allows foreign corporations to sue governments over laws and policies that corporations allege reduce their profits. Policies that protect sharks or that safeguard practices, such as the burning of coal-fired power plants that impact sharks, could be put at risk as a result of these rules.

The United States and other countries have figured out that more stringent safeguards are necessary in the fight to protect sharks. Yet even these measures currently protect a paltry number of shark species, perhaps no more than 2 percent. If the Trans-Pacific trade pact undercuts these small but significant gains, the time may not be long before fishermen have no more sharks to fin and Shark Week will only air on the History Channel.

Co-authored with Chris Chaulk, Sierra Club International Program Intern