Sharks are the apex predator of the ocean — they are at the top of the food chain, prey to no other animal in the water. Their size, strength and, of course, their teeth make them the quintessential movie monsters. In real life, they regularly get screen time on TV news when they maim or kill a person.
But, fearsome or not, their presence in the ocean is essential to its health, helping keep its ecosystems in balance and influencing the behavior and distribution of other species. Without sharks, the fish population would actually be far less diverse, with fewer herbivores, and coral reefs would be more endangered than they are now.
While sharks prevail in the oceans, they are no match for fishers who catch them to cut off their fins for sale. Up to 73 million sharks are pulled from the water each year, according to the ocean protection organization Oceana, and hauled aboard a fishing vessel. Many have their fins sawed off their live bodies before being thrown back into the water where, without their fins, they cannot get water to flow over their gills to access oxygen. They drown, starve to death, or drift down in the water, where they are eaten alive by other animals.
This barbaric and wasteful practice feeds a market for the expensive Chinese delicacy known as shark-fin soup, and for shark fin curios that are put up for sale.
Of the numerous species of sharks, close to a third are considered to be in danger of extinction. Some shark populations have been reduced to 10% of their historical levels. But it’s impossible to tell which cut-off fins are from which species of shark.
The U.S. has long prohibited shark finning in its own waters — and the European Union, Canada, Australia and some other countries have similar bans in their waters. But it still occurs in international waters and those of other nations. The state of California did its part to stanch the commercial traffic in fins by passing a law in 2011 that bans the possession or sale of shark fins. Currently, 11 other states have similar bans in place. But that hasn’t stopped the international export of fins to the other 38 states, some of which, then, become hubs in the U.S. for commerce in shark fins.
The ideal way to tackle this issue is with a federal ban. Bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to forbid the possession, sale or purchase of any shark fin or product containing shark fin (with some limited exceptions). This is a straightforward, common-sense approach that has broad, bipartisan support in Congress. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), the original sponsor of the House bill, has 261 co-sponsors on his bill. The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), has 39 co-sponsors.
Given that kind of support, it should not be difficult for House leaders to pull the bill out of the Natural Resources Committee and get it to the floor so it can be voted on before Congress adjourns for the year. There isn’t enough time left to move the measure through the Senate, but passing it in the House would give the proposal some momentum in the new Congress, rather than forcing supporters to start over.