Working to Protect Marine Ecosystems: Oregon Bans Shark Fin Trade

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In June 2011, Oregon passed legislation that prohibits the distribution and possession of shark fins within its state. Oregon House Representative Brad Witt, House District 31, sponsored House Bill 2838, which declares that an individual may not “possess, sell or offer for sale, trade or distribute a shark fin” within the state. Bill 2838 effectively closed a loophole that existed in Oregon state law, which prohibited the practice of “shark finning” within state waters but did not address the possession, distribution or trade of shark fins. House Bill 2838 prohibits such activity and effectively clarifies the rules adopted to prevent the establishment of a shark finning industry within Oregon.

Shark finning is the process of removing the dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, anal, and tail fins of a shark. After all of a shark’s fins and its tail are cut off, the rest of the shark is discarded back into the ocean. The shark is then left to survive without any of its limbs, which often results in starvation, suffocation and eventually death.

In 2010, nearly 73 million sharks were killed as a result of shark finning. Sharks’ slow reproduction rates raise many concerns over the survival of many shark species. Sustained growth in the demand for shark fins, which are used in traditional Chinese shark fin soup, may deplete worldwide shark populations and leave marine ecosystems without an important natural predator.

Representative Witt’s bill follows the passage of Hawaiian Senate Bill 2169, which also prohibits the sale, distribution, possession or trade of shark fins within the island state. Guam, Chile, the Bahamas and Washington State have already approved similar legislation. California [passed! -- editor] and the Northwest provinces of Canada are currently considering adopting shark finning laws as well. In 2012, Taiwan will move to ban shark finning at sea, and it will be the first Asian country to do so.

After learning about the practice of fining from scuba diver and friend Phil Tobin, Representative Witt decided to sponsor a bill that would effectively eliminate the distribution, possession and sale of shark fins within Oregon. Witt’s strong commitment to protecting animal rights influenced his decision to sponsor House Bill 2838. Gaining a Representative’s sponsorship is the first step that is required for all proposed bills to become law within Oregon. Once a Representative sponsors a proposed bill, it is then sent to the Legislative Counsel’s office to be written into the accepted legal format. From there, the bill is sent to the appropriate departments within the state legislature, assigned a number, verified for proper legal format, and sent to the State Printing Division to be printed for its first reading.

According to Oregon legislative records, the first reading of a bill involves reciting its measure number, title, and sponsor upon its introduction in either legislative chamber. In this case, only the measure number and title of House Bill 2838 were read in the Oregon House of Representatives. After its first reading, Witt’s bill was referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

After the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee received House Bill 2838, a public hearing was held on March 18, 2011. In this hearing, Witt introduced the contents of House Bill 2838 and explained the importance of curtailing the development of a market for shark fins within Oregon.

Representative Witt worked with many stakeholders who had an interest in prohibiting the possession and trade of shark fins within Oregon. Concerned citizens, media professionals, business owners, environmental groups, and non-profit organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, OCEANA, the Oregon Environmental Council, and WildAid, provided support for Witt’s bill. Scott Beckstead, the Senior State Director for Oregon at the Humane Society of the United States, considers shark finning to be a high priority for legislation within the United States. Beckstead identified that serious animal welfare and global environmental concerns are associated with the practice.

Representative Witt also actively worked with opponents of certain parts of House Bill 2838 to coordinate exemptions that would allow commercial fisherman and seafood processors to continue harvesting spiny dogfish, a species of shark. The capture and processing of spiny dogfish had been legal before House Bill 2838 was proposed. Representative Witt worked to ensure that the legitimate practice was not unintentionally disrupted. Provisions within Witt’s bill also allow commercial fisherman, sports fisherman and seafood processors who hold licenses or permits issued by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to possess, sell, trade and distribute shark fins in ways that are consistent with the terms of those licenses and permits.

After the initial public hearings, a work session was held on April 20, 2011, to clarify the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee’s understanding of House Bill 2838. The work session was closed to public testimony and Representative Witt fielded the Committee’s questions. During this work session, House Bill 2838 was unanimously moved to the House floor for voting with a “do pass” recommendation. Representative Witt agreed to carry his bill on the House floor.

After House Bill 2838 was reported out of the Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee, necessary amendments to the bill were included and it was reprinted as an engrossed bill.  On April 28, 2011, a second reading of Witt’s bill took place where the bill’s measure number and title were read in preparation of the third reading in which a final vote would take place.

On April 29, 2011, a third reading of House Bill 2838 took place. The measure passed the House vote and it was sent to the Oregon Senate. Once Witt’s bill reached the Senate, it underwent a similar process as it did in the House. After a first reading was held, House Bill 2838 was referred to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Once being referred, a public hearing and work session were held on separate dates respectively.

After hearing testimony from Representative Witt and other stakeholders on May 26, 2011, the Senate recommended to pass House Bill 2838 with the additional amendments to protect legal and incidental catches of sharks by Oregon fisherman and seafood processors.

After a second and third reading of House Bill 2838, the Oregon Senate passed Representative Witt’s measure on May 31, 2011. The Oregon House later agreed with the Senate’s proposed amendments and it repassed the bill on June 2, 2011.

On August 4, 2011, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber signed House Bill 2838 into law with an effective date of January 1, 2012.

Oregon’s passage of House Bill 2838 highlights Representative Witt’s collaborative efforts to help set the precedent that the practice of shark finning and the trade of shark fins will not be accepted within the United States.

By Phil Tobin
ptobin6625 AT gmail DOT com

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