WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following in the footsteps of the Hawaii Legislature, Congress appears poised to prohibit the shark fin trade in the U.S., with deep bipartisan support for the measure.
In 2010, Hawaii was the first state to ban the sale of shark fins, which are frequently harvested by capturing sharks, slashing off their fins, then throwing them still alive back into the sea where they suffocate, bleed to death, sink to the ocean floor or get eaten by other predators.
Conservation groups at the time called Hawaii a “global leader” and the legislation “ground-breaking.”
Until 20 years ago, shark finning was a common practice in the waters around Hawaii, and Honolulu was a major international market for shark fins, the key ingredient in a Chinese epicurean specialty, shark fin soup.
The fins command top dollar, and catching sharks to cut off their fins, which are easier to store aboard ship than the entire creature, is a lucrative business. Shark fins sell for as much as $500 a pound; a bowl of shark fin soup can cost $100 or more, according to congressional testimony last week.
Some 200 co-sponsors, including Hawaii U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa have joined in backing HR 1456, the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act. A companion measure in the Senate, S 793, has 19 backers, including Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz.
The bill’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. Edward Royce, is a Republican who has spent the past few years pushing the legislation. On Thursday at the hearing, another Republican, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, who chairs a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, urged his fellow legislators to join him in prohibiting the sale of shark fins.
Proponents hope the new bill will more effectively reach the downstream parts of the trade.
“The United States has made great efforts to protect sharks in our territorial waters,” Farenthold said, adding that while the U.S. has outlawed shark finning, many coastal states have had difficulty enforcing the ban because selling the fins can be so lucrative.
“Now is the time for the U.S. to prohibit the trade of shark fins completely as well,” he said.
The bill would impose fines of up to $100,000 for participating in the shark fin trade.
He said that banning shark finning would help restore endangered shark populations and aid in maintaining the aquatic diversity essential to ocean ecosystems.
Shark finning was a long-established business in Hawaii in the 1990s, when many people began debating the ethics of it.
In 1999, it was estimated that about 100,000 blue sharks were caught each year by Hawaii-based longline fishing vessels, and that about 60,000 of those animals had had their fins removed. Critics said the practice was cruel and wasteful.
But outlawing it was difficult in Hawaii because the debate pitted different cultural groups against each other. Many Chinese consider shark fin soup a staple at festivities like banquets and weddings, and part of their cultural heritage. Many Hawaiians, on the other hand, revere sharks and believe themselves to be spiritually linked to them, with sharks playing a role as guardians for their families.
In 2000, the Legislature passed a law requiring that fishermen bring the entire shark to port, not just the fins, in an effort to force the industry to stop the dismemberments.
On the federal level, meanwhile, the Shark Fishing Prohibition Act of 2000 was passed, which did the same thing more widely in U. S. waters in the Pacific. Passage wasn’t easy — opponents of the measure included the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council — but the measure ultimately won widespread support.
In 2010, then-state Sen. Clayton Hee, who is part Hawaiian and part Chinese, sponsored legislation to ban the sale of shark fins. He had the support of Vicky Tiu Cayetano, the Chinese-American wife of former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano.
In an interview in 2012, Hee compared shark finning to other kinds of trophy hunting.
“It’s little different than harvesting the tusks of elephants or the horns of rhinoceroses,” he said at the time. “It’s a wasteful practice that serves no good in a civilized world.”
Again, there was pushback. Some Chinese-Americans warned that tourism would suffer if Chinese visitors couldn’t find the specialty foods they associated with celebrations, but animal rights advocates eventually prevailed.
“With the enactment of this ban on shark finning, Hawaii has once again set an example for the rest of the country, if not the world, to follow,” Inga Gibson, Hawaii state director for The Humane Society of the United States, said in a press release at the time.
A number of other states have passed similar measures, including Texas, which last year made it a criminal act “to buy, sell or transport with the intention” of selling shark fins.
But as each state passed its own laws, the shark fin traffic shifted elsewhere or went underground, according to three witnesses at the congressional hearing on Thursday. All three urged legislators to pass the bill, which they said could help solve the problems.
Brandi Reeder, an official of the Texas department of parks and wildlife, said that Texas game wardens visited several restaurants in September after getting a tip from animal rights activists that they were selling shark fin soup. The regular menus did not list the soup, but when the wardens asked for it specifically, special menus were produced that showed the soup was available for those who knew to ask. At a supermarket Texas officials visited, meanwhile, a salesman ran to hide the stocks of shark fin hidden in a back room but he was stopped before he could dispose of it.
Reeder said stronger penalties needed to be put in place to try to prevent what she called these “covert operations.”
Lora Snyder, director of sharks and responsible fishing campaigns for Oceana, an international advocacy organization that focuses on ocean conservation, said that inconsistencies in how shark fin imports and exports are calculated make it hard to know how much of it actually reaches the U.S. and how much is sold to other countries from the United States. In many Asian countries, there are no prohibitions on shark finning practices or consumption and weak or non-existent fishing regulations designed to promote sustainability.
Some 73 million sharks are killed each year in the global fin trade, and 91 percent of it comes from areas where little attention is being paid to sustainability of fish stocks, she said, quoting statistics from a 2016 report by Oceana.
Another witness at the hearing said there are some signs that the shark-fin trade is declining. Alistair Dove, a marine biologist who serves as vice president of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium, said some studies have shown shark fin consumption has dropped by 80 percent because of public awareness campaigns. In addition, he said, the Chinese government has forbidden shark fin soup to be served at official functions, although it was more an austerity measure than an animal rights concern.
“There’s no doubt Hawaiians know the ocean is critical to protect and preserve, and that includes the shark population,” Snyder said. “This is closing the loopholes and getting the United States to follow the leadership of states like Hawaii.”