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Congress right to save sharks

An Australian customs officer holds drying shark fins

An Australian customs officer holds drying shark fins found on a suspected illegal fishing boat in the waters off Northern Territory of Australia. Photo Credit: Australian Customs Service, 2006, via AP

Putting teeth into a law to save sharks may sound like a bad pun, but it's a good idea. Approximately 73 million sharks a year are killed just for their fins, to make shark fin soup. With a big push from Ellen Pikitch, a shark expert now based at Stony Brook University, a 2000 law tried to curb this practice, which is denuding the ocean of a predator vital to the balance of ocean life. But the industry found loopholes in it. Now, Congress has wisely voted to close them.

The law targets a practice called shark finning. Those who harvest the sharks cut off the fins and toss the shark back in, to spiral helplessly toward the ocean floor, with no means of locomotion or defense.

One reason to oppose this is humanitarian. It's a nasty way to treat an amazing creature. Notwithstanding the "Jaws" music in our heads, the number of shark attacks on humans is tiny. Our impact on them is not.

The other reason is preserving marine ecosystems. As sharks disappear, the species they eat will multiply. That's bad news for lower species and for nature's balance.

Pikitch, the executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, which moved to Stony Brook in 2008, campaigned hard for the 2000 law. Later, she co-wrote a study establishing the magnitude of the trade. But people still crave the Asian delicacy, and the market for fins is still strong. The price is now about $300 a pound. So, people found ways around the law.

The loopholes are complex, but once the new bill becomes law, with one tiny exemption, ships won't legally be able to bring shark fins to shore in U.S. ports if they're separate from the body of the shark. That will slow the fin harvest, because a complete shark takes up a lot more room on a vessel than its fins alone do. And it will encourage the use of the less-valuable parts: the skin and the flesh. Also, it will curb the practice of ships harvesting and transferring the fins to other vessels that then claim exemption from the law as nonfishing vessels.

Globally, a change in U.S. law alone won't prevent other nations from harvesting fins. But it will give our nation more standing to argue in international tribunals for preservation. Every time the biological diversity of our planet declines, we are all the poorer for it. That makes saving sharks well worthwhile, even if it means costlier soup. hN