Hawaii was the first state to ban the hideous practice of ocean fishermen slicing off sharks' fins for use in a soup delicacy in Asian countries and throwing the still-alive bodies back to the sea. California, Washington and Oregon are among other states that have followed in banning the sale or distribution of shark fins — and these tough state laws should be aided, but not superseded, by proposed federal rules aimed at eliminating at-sea fin removal.
Sharks are in the news most often when a human is bitten, reminiscent of "Jaws," as was the case last week when a Kailua-Kona swimmer luckily made it back to shore after being attacked. By a long shot, though, sharks are more often victims than attackers. Up to an estimated 70 million sharks are slaughtered for their fins every year.
Three years ago, the Hawaii Legislature took bold action by making illegal the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins in the state. Several months later, President Barack Obama signed into law the Shark Conservation Act. Under the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration's proposed federal rules, fishing vessels would be prohibited from slicing off shark fins in federal waters and instead, be required to bring shark catches into U.S. docks with fins intact.
While not a total shark-fin ban, this proposal would at least make it more burdensome for shark-finners than the current cruel practice of lopping off fins in U.S. waters. Such a policy is needed as a hedge against the many states without tough shark-fin bans.
In addition to the brutality of the shark-fin mutilation, the diminishing of sharks could cause irreversible damage to the ocean's ecosystem since they play an important role in the balance of the marine environment.
Some environmentalists and Hawaii officials, including state Sen. Clayton Hee, who sponsored the Hawaii shark finning ban, have expressed concern that the federal law would preempt states laws.
"Rolling back those fin trade bans would be a considerable setback," said Jill Hepp, the Pew Charitable Trusts' director of shark conservation. "Those bans have had a positive impact. … It closed off these markets for fins in the world."
The key here is to preserve enlightened state laws that outright ban possession and selling of shark fins, while establishing a stringent federal law to make it more cumbersome for the trade.
The U.S. law would apply only to U.S. boats and waters but has global consequences, since it includes 200 miles around many U.S.- possession Pacific islands. Shark finning has been banned for years off the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the expansion of the activity in the Pacific, although island nations of Micronesia, the Maldives, Palau and the Marshall Islands rightly have outlawed shark finning.
China and Japan are the leading consumers of shark fins, and many fins go to Hong Kong, Spain, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and United Arab Emirates. African countries are reported to be major exporters.
Michael Tosatto, NOAA's regional administrator, said pre-emption of states' laws, including Hawaii's, could depend on the interpretation of the states' shark-finning laws. But at this stage, the federal administration, which is taking public comment up to July 8, must find a way to keep intact Hawaii and other states' anti-shark-fin laws to bolster federal policy.