Maryland bites into shark fin trade

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Blue sharks are one of the most in need of protection. Once was one of the most prolific sharks in the ocean they are now in need of protection from commercial fishing and finning. Karin Leonard/Marine Photobank

Blue sharks are one of the most in need of protection. Once was one of the most prolific sharks in the ocean they are now in need of protection from commercial fishing and finning. Karin Leonard/Marine Photobank

Ocean City, Maryland. An edited version of the following opinion was published on 6 March 2013 in DelmarvaNow.com – the online version of The Daily Times – a newspaper of  Salisbury, Maryland. It also appeared in the 7 March print version.

Maryland is currently considering a bill to prohibit the trade and distribution of shark fins.  Sharks are disappearing from the world’s oceans and this Maryland policy is the latest amidst a growing international response to protect our resources and sustain healthy fisheries.

shark fins

NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins. Photo: NOAA

Shark.  The word alone conjures up a mixed array of feelings, from fear to admiration.  No other animal so fully embodies our love-hate perception of the wild ocean.  Just as we crave for the ocean on warm, summer days, we adore the sleek, ancient beauty of these predators.  Yet just as the ocean can turn on us with hurricane force and the suddenness of a tsunami, sharks also populate the darkest recesses of our primal fears.

In reality, sharks have much more to fear from us than us of them.  A practice called finning is destroying 100 million sharks each year.   In this controversial fishery – federally prohibited in US waters – the fins of sharks are brutally hacked off and remaining carcasses tossed overboard.  The fins are sought for an Asian delicacy called shark fin soup.  Expensive, the dish was once a somewhat rare tradition served at weddings of Chinese elite.  But as the Asian economy has grown, so has the demand for this once out-of-budget status symbol.

The problem for oceans and Maryland’s offshore fisheries is that, as top predators, sharks keep the ocean ecosystem in balance.   Their presence keeps prey species strong and robust, while preventing adverse population blooms of potential pests.  In short, the impact of sharks improves our fisheries, prevents dead zones, helps stabilize the climate and maintains the character of the ocean we know and enjoy.  Unfortunately, we have already lost as much as 90% of the world’s large sharks since 1950.

The bill in question would not negatively impact Marylanders.  Regulations on shark fishing would remain unchanged for recreation, tournaments and commercial activities alike, providing that sharks are landed with their fins on.  The bill would also not disrupt Maryland’s dogfish fishery. Dogfish fins are considered substandard for shark fin soup and none were exported out of Baltimore last year.  We currently have no significant trade in this commodity.

What the bill would do is remove shark fin soup from the menus of a handful of DC area restaurants, prevent a destructive trade from springing in the future, and issue a signal to the international community that Marylanders do not tolerate the wanton destruction of our shared ocean resources.

shark graveyard

This finned shark was found in a “shark graveyard” off Sulawesi Island, Indonesia.
Photo: Nancy Boucha, www.scubasystems.org 2005/Marine Photobank

The bill, known as Senate Bill 592 & House Bill 1148, was heard by the Maryland Senate on February 26.   It went before the House on Wednesday, March 6.  Voting is still pending, meaning constituents yet have time to contact elected officials with your feelings.

Should the bill pass, Maryland will join the states of Hawai’i, California, Washington, and Oregon, where similar laws have already been enacted.  Like the US, the actual practice of shark finning is also prohibited in Europe, Costa Rica, Palau and other nations worldwide.

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