By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Sharks have been around for 450 million years, outliving the dinosaurs and surviving mass extinctions. But now, out of the 500 or so species (that we know of), a third of all sharks and shark-like species are threatened with extinction due to human activity. Some of these species include the unique scalloped hammerhead shark, the common thresher shark, which uses a long tail to stun prey and the bespeckled whale shark, the world’s largest living fish.
This year for Shark Week, we have some exciting updates regarding the protection of global shark populations, as well as a reminder to contact your federal lawmakers to get a key provision combatting the global trade in shark fins across the finish line.
Threats to sharks
Sharks have suffered from ocean pollution, overfishing, accidentally being caught in nets targeting other fish and the gruesome practice of “finning.”
Shark fins are the signature ingredient in shark fin soup, a high-status, luxury dish in some countries, so these appendages tend to fetch more money than the rest of the shark. To maximize profits from limited boat space, fishers sometimes take only the fins—catching sharks, hacking off their fins, then dumping the sharks back in the water to drown, be eaten alive by other fish or bleed to death, an incredibly cruel way to die.
While federal law bans the act of shark finning in United States waters, the U.S. is an end market as well as a transit point for shark fins obtained in other countries where finning is unregulated or where finning laws are not sufficiently enforced. It is estimated that 73 million sharks are killed each year to supply the global fin trade.
Turning the tide
Despite these grim statistics, there has been progress on shark protection at the state, federal and international levels that warrants celebration during the week dedicated to our oceans’ apex carnivores.
In March, Georgia’s House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution, sponsored by Representative Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), stating Georgia’s opposition to the shark fin trade. We advocated for this effort along with the Georgia Aquarium to highlight the necessity of protecting these species so critical to ocean health.
This is especially significant given that in recent years, Georgia has become one of the largest shark-fin-exporting states, mainly via the port of Savannah. That Rep. Stephens’s district includes Savannah makes the resolution that much more impactful. While a resolution is non-binding (meaning that it is not a law and mainly signals public sentiment toward an issue), we hope that it sets the groundwork for legislation to officially ban the trade in shark fins in Georgia next year.
At the federal level, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and in the U.S. House by Reps. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, D-Northern Mariana Islands, and Michael McCaul, R-Texas) has passed both chambers of Congress for the first time as part of a larger legislative package. If signed into law, the bill would remove the U.S. from its participation in the global shark fin trade and reinforce our country’s leadership in shark protection.
On the global level, CITES, an international agreement overseeing international wildlife trade, will consider proposals to increase protections for sharks and rays at a meeting in November. If these proposals are adopted, the vast majority of species in the fin trade will have global safeguards in place.
There will always be work to be done to protect our oceans and their inhabitants, but we should take some time to celebrate the progress we have made in turning the tide to protect sharks, those fascinating ancient cousins of dinosaurs who share the planet with us.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.