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March 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Shark Fins Are Banned in 12 U.S. States -- But Itís Still on the Menu

from the March, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you're in Los Angeles and the mood strikes, you can easily order shark fin soup from China Gate Restaurant for $16.95 -- even though it's against the law. California is one of 12 states that bans the sale of shark fins -- but that hasn't stopped a lot of restaurants from catering to the still-significant demand for shark fin soup in the U.S.

Every year, the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute updates its list of restaurants that serve shark fin soup and notifies state enforcement agencies. But so far, the bans haven't stopped restaurants in at least 10 of the 12 states. During the past two years, at least five bills relating to the country's shark fin trade have been introduced in Congress. All five died, leaving the fate of sharks in the U.S. uncertain. (Two new bills were introduced last month.)

Understaffed enforcement agencies in U.S. states that ban shark fin say cases can be hard to make. The shark fin trade tends to go underground; in addition, fines and jail sentences are generally light and have little deterrent effect.

Peter Knights, CEO of the environmental group WildAid, says a U.S. ban on sales would send the message that selling and consuming shark fin isn't acceptable anymore. But, argues Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory, given how difficult it is for states to enforce their bans, a nationwide ban would just drive the shark fin market underground -- as it has done in San Francisco.

When the shark fin ban passed in California in 2013, San Francisco marine warden William O'Brien received a tip, and confiscated more than 2,000 pounds of shark fin, worth at least $500,000, from a warehouse. The accused, a shark fin wholesaler who said his family had been in the business for four generations, pleaded no contest -- he spent 30 days in jail, paid a court fine and received three years' probation. Since then, the leads have dried up. O'Brien suspects restaurants and market owners are now storing their supplies off premises -- perhaps in their homes, which are off-limits without a search warrant. "Essentially, the market has gone so far underground that it requires more specialization than I have to dig it up," he says.

In most other states, prison sentences are rare and usually don't exceed six months for a first offense. Fines are usually less than $1,000. By contrast, a single pound of dried shark fin can sell for $400, and shark fin soup can command anywhere from $50 to $200.

That's why Hueter is against a national shark fin ban. "The folks pushing the fin ban campaign want to simplify it -- thinking that if we ban the fin trade in the United States, we save sharks all around the world. That is so simplistic and so wrong." As an alternative, he helped draft the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, which Florida Congressman Daniel Webster plans to reintroduce this session. This bill would allow imports only from countries that prohibit finning and promote shark conservation.

But maybe good messaging and marketing is the better prevention method. In a recent advertisement, Chinese basketball star Yao Ming pushes a cup of shark fin soup across a table, while in a nearby aquarium tank, a bleeding computer-generated shark sinks to the bottom. "Remember," he says, "when the buying stops, the killing can too." Since 2011, consumption of shark fin soup in China has fallen by about 80 percent, both because of national bans on serving shark fin at government banquets and the effect of celebrity-backed awareness campaigns like Yao Ming's.

Many conservationists believe similar efforts in the U.S. would curb demand. People generally don't give much thought to what they're eating, says Susan Millward, director of the marine animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute "It's just a lack of connecting the dots with where this product came from ... these animals are dying painfully, and their whole ecosystems are being affected -- for what?"

-- condensed from an article by Rachel Fobar in National Geographic

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