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August 08, 2013

Turn the Tide on Shark Finning

Photo Credit: Nicolò Bonazzi

We're halfway through Shark Week, and many of you have already taken a break from watching the country's first-ever late-night shark talk show and taken actions to save the sharks in the Great Barrier Reef. You may also have learned about the connection between the decline of the shark population and the burning and dredging of more coal near their sensitive habitats.

Sadly, there's another way that humans are putting sharks in danger -- shark finning. Unfair trade could exacerbate these and other problems, putting some sharks on a fast track to extinction.

Imagine if a segment on Shark Week showed someone cutting off a part of a fish, then throwing it back to the sea to bleed to death or fall prey to another sea creature. Think that would fly on Discovery? It might not be featured on primetime television, but it's regrettably a huge business. Fishermen around the globe perpetrate this practice known as "finning" on millions of sharks each year. Restaurants then put the fins, void of flavor and nutrition, into an expensive soup. Simply put, shark finning has caused the decline of an important player in our ecosystem.

The shark fin trade has boomed in the past half century and has significantly depleted shark species. The dozen most common shark species in the fin trade all face extinction. Promisingly, more states, countries, and international communities are working together to end this practice. New York, one of the largest markets for shark fins outside of Asia, recently joined seven other U.S. states in passing laws that ban the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins.  Additionally, nine Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and nearly 50 countries or states have adopted provisions to regulate, if not ban, the practice of shark finning. The United States also saw progress toward protecting sharks when President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act in 2011.

Policies that ban shark finning are critical to saving shark species from extinction. So when the U.S. decides to engage in trade with other nations, it's particularly important to uphold and strengthen these significant measures. The U.S. is currently in talks with 11 other Pacific Rim nations to develop a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.  Because shark populations in the Pacific Rim, such as the oceanic whitetip, are declining precipitously, sharks and shark finning are on the negotiating table in this trade pact.

Fairtrade-signThough drafts of the trade pact are not being released to the public, we understand that the United States is pushing a strong conservation proposal that includes specific obligations to conserve shark populations, including actions to deter shark-finning practices. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. proposal -– which is, crucially, legally binding and enforceable -– has thus far met strong resistance from other countries in the trade pact and risks being rolled back, further threatening the shark population.

Moreover, although the U.S. is advancing a strong conservation proposal in the environment chapter of the pact, it is also pushing other proposals that would be extremely damaging to our environment, to the climate, and, therefore, to sharks. The U.S. investment chapter proposal would allow foreign corporations to sue governments over laws and policies that corporations allege reduce their profits. Policies that protect sharks or that safeguard against practices, such as the burning of coal-fired power plants, that affect sharks, could be put at risk as a result of such rules.  

The United States and other countries have figured out that more-stringent safeguards are necessary if we want to protect sharks. Yet the measures already in place protect only a small number of shark species, perhaps no more than two percent. If the Trans-Pacific trade pact undercuts these small but significant gains, it might not be long before fishermen have no more sharks to fin, and Shark Week will be forced to move from the Discovery Channel to the History Channel.

--Ilana Solomon, Sierra Club Trade Representative, with help from Chris Chaulk, Sierra Club International Program Intern



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