Conservationists say stronger protections needed for sharks


An international marine conservation organization is calling on the federal government to protect the world's dwindling shark populations by banning imports of shark products from countries that have weak protections in place.

In an Aug. 1 letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Oceana asks the U.S. government to ban imports of shark products, such as dried fins, from China, Japan, Indonesia, and a dozen other countries where conservation regulations governing shark fishing are weaker than in the United States.

"What we're proposing here is a separate tool" from Assembly Bill 376, the proposed California legislation that would ban the sale or distribution of shark fins, said Oceana marine scientist Rebecca Greenberg. That effort has generated controversy because it would clamp down on the sale of shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy traditionally served at special occasions such as weddings.

The shark fin ban is a particularly hot topic in San Francisco, where Sen. Leland Yee, who has voiced opposition to AB 376, is considered a top tier candidate in the mayor's race. Some pro-AB 376 activists recently created a Facebook page and an online coalition called Sharks Against Leland Yee.

Oceana's efforts, however, seek to go way beyond the West Coast by banning imports of shark products from 15 different countries. "Of course they want to be able to keep on exporting to the U.S.," said Greenberg. "It'll encourage them to improve their domestic shark regulations."

Oceana's 21-page letter is the product of extensive research into the countries' conservation regulations (or lack thereof) and an analysis of shark product imports to the U.S.

Hong Kong dominates the global trade in shark fins, the letter notes, and dried shark fins were imported from Hong Kong to Oakland in January of this year. Indonesia, meanwhile, is listed as the top shark fishing nation in the world, with its fleet accounting for 13 percent of the global reported catch. Other countries on the list include Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Costa Rica, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, and Spain.

The federal Shark Conservation Act, enacted last year, made it illegal for fishing crews to slash fins off sharks aboard the boats, instead requiring them to return to port with fins still attached to the sharks they have caught. This regulation is meant as a way to guard against the unsustainable practice of catching a shark, slicing off the valuable fin, and leaving the animal to die in the open ocean. Accompanying this rule are limits on how many sharks can be removed from the ocean, which "ensures the shark population isn't being fished to death," Greenberg said. Whether or not other countries have "fins attached" policies was a key criteria Oceana used to determine whether the other countries have adequate regulations, Greenberg said.

The Shark Conservation Act also provided the U.S. with a tool to ensure that other countries followed its example, by sanctioning countries that have not adopted a regulatory program for the conservation of sharks that is comparable to that of the US.

Oceana's aim was to help the National Marine Fisheries Service by identifying which countries the U.S. imports from that are catching sharks without adequate regulations. "We gave them the information," she said, "and we do hope that they will take action against this."

UPDATE: Adam Keigwin of Sen. Leland Yee's office has contacted the Guardian with more information about Yee's stance on the shark fin ban. "If Assemblyman [Paul] Fong keeps his word and takes the amendment he promised to take in the last committee, Senator Yee will likely support AB 376," Keigwin wrote. The amendment, he explained, would ban all fins besides those from domestic sharks that are brought fully intact on shore for various products. "Also," he added, "Ed Lee has expressed opposition to the bill."