Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Comparing the US Shark Fin Bans

Guest blog
by Don Gourlie

Sharks are typically thought of as cold blooded killers that will seek out and attack humans with no provocation. While it is true that sharks are powerful creatures, evolved to become apex predators in their environment, they have very little interest in humans as a meal and most shark bites result from confusion. The reality is that sharks should be scared of us, not us of them. Sharks are hunted by humans and killed for shark fin soup.. The soup is composed of chicken broth and shark fin, which has very little taste, and is added for texture and supposed health benefits. A bowl of the soup can sell for the equivalent of $200 in many markets, and as a result sharks have been overfished in many fisheries around the world.

Over the past two years, several of the United States and US territories have enacted legislation with an aim to protect sharks and reduce the pressure of shark fishing worldwide. Shark fin bans have been passed in Hawaii, California, Washington, Oregon, and the U.S territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Each law carries penalties for violating the laws, most of which involve fines and minimal jail time.

Hawaii was the first state to enact a shark fin ban in May of 2010, and its ban remains the strictest of all the shark fin bans. The law carries increases penalties for first, second, and third penalties, starting with a $5,000 minimum fine for a first offense and a maximum $50,000 fine or one year of jail time for the third offense. In addition a second or third offense can also result in seizure of property and fishing vessels. This bill was championed by Senator Clayton Hee who remains an advocate for sharks and has urged lawmakers in other states to adopt shark fin bans.

Washington and Oregon each passed bans in May of 2011 and California passed its ban in October of 2011. Oregon’s ban would carry a maximum fine of $2,500 for a first offense increasing with each offense up to a maximum of $25,000 for fourth offense as well as the possibility of jail time under a class A misdemeanor. Washington’s ban stipulates that when a person sells or trades a shark fin, or prepares a shark fin for human consumption, they will be committing a gross misdemeanor, a crime which typically carries a small fine or a maximum one year prison sentence. The offense is increased to a class C felony if other criteria are met, such as fishing for shark in an area closed to fishing. A violation of California’s shark fin ban is a misdemeanor and carries a minimum fine of $100, and a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in prison. These penalties are not as clear as the penalties in the Hawaiian law and appear to be less harsh. This is likely because Hawaii is more concerned with the abundance of wildlife surrounding the islands and the amount of money that ecotourism brings to the state. As a result Hawaii has a much larger economic interest in retaining the natural balance of Marine life than many other states.

The fear with these enactments is that the penalties are not harsh enough. Of the three contiguous states with shark fin bans, Washington and Oregon’s laws are undoubtedly the strongest but still fall short of the Hawaiian law in terms of maximum fines and property seizure. The California ban has no increased penalties for second or third offense, which decreases the additional incentive to cease finning activities after a first offense. In addition, the California law has very low minimum fines associated with a violation of the law. The price for a bowl of shark fin soup can be as high as $200, and a pound of shark meat can retail for $1,200 or more. The minimum fines and punishments for violating the recently passed state laws range from $100 in California, to $5,000 in Hawaii. Some people may feel that they will be able to quickly pass the fins along to the consumer with a small risk of being caught, and that if they are caught, the lucrative business will outweigh the risks. This will be especially true if the demand for fins remains the same but the legislation causes the supply to decrease. In turn the price will increase exponentially and any individual or company that wishes to ignore the law will be able to still turn a profit as the fines will be easily absorbed by the revenue from selling fins.

Several other states such as Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, and New York have introduced shark fin bans of their own. The ban proposed in Maryland is modeled after the Hawaiian law but carries only civil penalties in the form of fines. The nature of civil penalties is to reimburse the state for harm done, rather than to punish the wrongdoer and there is no possibility of jail time. This bill has stiff fines that increase if there are repeat offenders but could be strengthened if criminal penalties are included. The proposed shark fin ban in Virginia would make a violation a class 1 misdemeanor ($2,500 fine and/or less than one year in jail) but has no increasing penalties for repeat offenders. As these states contemplate and sponsor shark fin bans, advocates urge citizens to encourage their representatives to strengthen the penalties for violations and show support for these bills. These laws prove that humans are able to realize our potential for change before it is too late, but shark fin bans may not be enough to curtail the overfishing that is currently depleting shark populations around the world if they do not effectively deter the act.

Don Gourlie is currently a student at Lewis & Clark Law School, pursuing a law degree with a concentration in environmental law. Prior to Lewis & Clark he attended the University of Tampa where he obtained a degree in marine science and biology. A majority of his undergraduate work was spent studying shark ecology and the potential effects of overfishing and the finning industry on marine ecosystems. He is attending law school in the hopes of furthering law and policy in favor sharks as an advocate for these misunderstood animals.

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