Though many find them scary, ugly and generally repellent, the world needs sharks: they are important predators and scavengers, necessary to many different aquatic ecosystems.
New York has taken a step towards stopping our species from eliminating them from the oceans: the state legislature has voted unanimously to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins, the central ingredient in shark fin soup.
I wrote about New York’s consideration of a ban for Care2 Causes a year ago, and 1,200 Care2 readers heeded the call and signed a petition to New York’s governor.
State lawmakers took their time about it (which is not surprising given the extreme dysfunction of New York’s legislature, but I digress), but they finally came through. Now it is up to the Governor to sign it.
Maryland beat New York to the punch as the first East Coast state to ban trade in shark fins, adopting the law on May 2, 2013. This side of the country has lagged behind the West Coast, all of which has banned shark fins, as have Hawai’i Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Even landlocked Illinois is shark-fin-free. Momentum seems to be growing to kill the finning industry.
Shark fin soup is prized and very expensive in traditional Chinese culture, making finning a multi-million dollar industry. But even China has taken a (largely symbolic) step away from the dish by banning it at state banquets.
One reason for the hubbub is that killing sharks for soup has wiped out such large percentages of the fish that some species are now endangered and others close to it. According to Sea Shepherd, “many sharks take up to fifteen years to reach maturity and then produce only one shark pup per year. Such a fragile and slow reproduction rate means that their populations may never recover from the damage we have already inflicted.”
The other reason is the horror-show methods fishermen use to get the fins. As I described the process here last year, ”fishermen catch the animal and drag it aboard the boat, hack off its fin muscles, then throw it back into the sea,” unable to move normally and certain to die. They “drown, bleed to death or are eaten alive by predators after this mutilation.”
The common fear of sharks is largely unfounded. As Sea Shepherd points out,
Every year humans slaughter over 100 million sharks.
No more than 12 people a year are killed by sharks worldwide. In fact [it] is more dangerous to play golf than to swim in the ocean with sharks. More golfers are struck by lightning and killed each year than the total number of shark fatalities. Many more humans are struck and killed by boats every year than are attacked by sharks.
New York City is one of the largest markets for shark fins outside of Asia. New Yorker Patrick Kwan of the Humane Society of the United States, who has been advocating for the ban, pointed out to the Village Voice that “every Asian-American lawmaker in the legislature and on City Council stood in full support of the ban. ‘They are not only supporting, but they are also leading the effort.’”
Perhaps the tide is turning in sharks’ favor.
Photo credit: iStockphoto