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Editorial: New York should join effort to end shark trade

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. Credit: Australian Customs Service, 2006, via AP

Commercial fishing to harvest shark fins threatens to thin the ranks of the marine predators at alarming rates. The appendage is the namesake ingredient of shark fin soup, an expensive Chinese dish and long-time status symbol often served at weddings and banquets.

With the largest Chinese population of any city outside of Asia, New York has become a national hub for the lucrative shark fin industry. But a bill recently passed by the State Legislature would outlaw almost all such commercial trade. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should sign it.

Sharks have long been demonized by popular culture, like in the recent TV hit "Sharknado." But while Jaws may have bigger teeth than Fido, statistically, sharks are less dangerous than dogs.

The poorly regulated fin trade is even more alarming given that sharks reproduce extremely slowly. Sustainable fishing requires strict limits on the number of sharks that can be harvested at a time. Studies estimate up to 70 million are killed for their fins each year, already threatening various species. The extinction of such important predators holds the possibility of dramatic effects rippling down the food chain.

The federal Shark Finning Prohibition Act already bans from U.S. waters the brutal act of "finning" -- cutting off a shark's appendages before throwing the creature back in the ocean. But the import and sale of shark fins aren't otherwise federally regulated, provided that fishing boats bring sharks to port with fins attached. With Cuomo's signature, New York would join seven states already cracking down on the commercial shark fin trade. Recreational shark fishing would be protected under the new law, as would the commercial sale of fins from smooth and spiny dogfish.

If Cuomo signs the bill, which would take effect in July 2014, we would no longer see mass quantities of shark fins -- that is, unless the predators rain from the sky in the New York City-based "Sharknado 2."