Photo credit: Getty images.

Shark finning: cutting the fins off of live sharks, and dumping their bodies back into the ocean, where they drown, or are eaten alive by other fish. It’s not just a cruel way to kill an animal, but also a major reason why shark populations are declining across the world: every year as many as 70 million sharks end up in the fin trade (shark fins are dried and used as the key ingredient in shark fin soup), and as many as 90% of these fins are sourced from unsustainable fisheries.

So if you think that the U.S. wouldn’t allow shark finning...you’d be right.

Well, sort of.

The U.S. banned the practice of shark finning in 1993, but it’s still legal for fishermen to remove the fins after they’re dead, when they are back on shore. And more importantly, it’s legal in the U.S. to buy, sell, import and export shark fins. That means that even though fishermen can’t cut the fins off of live sharks, U.S. consumers can buy fins from countries which have no shark finning bans in place.

But the U.S. might finally have a solution:

The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (H.R. 1456), which was introduced by Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), aims to ban the possession, sale, and purchase of shark fins in the United States. Royce’s home state of California banned the shark fin trade in 2011. Yet about 60 tons of shark fins still arrive at the Port of Los Angeles each year, to be sold throughout the country. In introducing the bill, Royce stated:

The United States can set an example for the rest of the world by shutting down its market for shark fins, which are often harvested by leaving these animals to die a slow and painful death at the bottom of the ocean. While California led the way with a state-wide ban, there are still almost 40 states where the purchase of shark fins is legal. The bipartisan Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act is needed to eradicate shark finning for good.

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The proposed Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act aims to make it “illegal to possess, buy, sell, or transport shark fins” across the entire country. This would put a stop to the U.S. involvement in the global shark fin trade. But not everyone is happy about it.

Shark fishing industry groups have blasted such regulations as job killers, arguing that U.S. shark fishermen who are finning sharks legally will now be put out of business. In fact, a version of the bill was originally introduced in June of 2016 faced strong opposition from the shark fishing industry, which argued that by banning the export of shark fins, the bill would be leaving shark fishermen without a job. Shaun Gehan, the lobbyist for the group opposing the bill, explained that the export of fins from the U.S. from legally caught and processed sharks represents about half of the value of the fish for U.S. fishermen:“This bill simply takes the U.S. fisherman and pretty much puts him out of business, only to reward our small portion of the international market to the bad actors,” said Gehan in an interview with The Hill last October.

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The bill has also faced some criticize from the science community. In particular, a recent paper published by in the journal Marine Policy argues that the proposed shark fin ban would ultimately undermine the progress made by sustainable shark fisheries in the U.S. “Our paper addresses the fact that we have a historical situation of sustainable fishing over the last 20 years with stringent rules against practices like finning,” said Dr. Robert Hueter, the director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and co-author of the paper, in an interview to Earther. “We’ve got a situation of balance and therefore we don’t feel like it’s productive with 25 years of this work to throw out the whole model.”

Despite these criticisms, the bulk of the conservation community has rallied behind the act. More than 100 scientists have come out in support of it, arguing that without it, the U.S. is perpetuating the unsustainable global trade in shark fins. The letter ends by urging “Congress to ban the sale of shark fins nationwide.”

“The United States rightly decided to ban the trade of ivory and rhino horns—yet we still import shark fins, which can be the result of an equally brutal practice,” explained Lora Snyder, campaign director at Oceana, which has come out in support of the bill. “To protect sharks, we need to end the demand for shark fins…we applaud the leadership of the bill’s supporters in helping to end the shark fin trade in the United States.”

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In an op-ed, the conservation group Oceana explained that “The demand for shark fins is a global problem that will require a global solution,” and that the U.S. “must lead by example.”

We at Project Earth agree.