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Oceans Expert Calls for Ban on Shark Finning

June 3, 2011

Teeth, yes. Charisma, no.Image of shark

A magnetic personality probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of sharks, especially the great white shark, but the oceans' top predators have long held a morbid curiosity for humans.

And it's that public fascination that conservationists are using to try to stop shark finning, the brutal practice of cutting off their fins to make shark fin soup, an oceans expert told a Vermont Law School audience on June 2.

Michael Sutton, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans, kicked off the VLS Environmental Law Center's 2011 Hot Topics summer lecture series by discussing California's campaign to ban shark finning. A new California bill would outlaw the purchase, sale, trade or possession of shark fins. Hawaii has passed such a law. Oregon and Washington state are considering similar legislation.

"The goal is to put shark fin soup out of business in California," Sutton said.

Shark finning kills an estimated 73 million sharks a year, contributing to a significant decline in shark populations worldwide, Sutton said. The practice involves hacking off a live shark's fins, then leaving it to die slowly as it sinks to the bottom of the sea.Image of shark fishing

Shark fin soup is a traditional Chinese delicacy, a symbol of wealth and power, but surveys show that a vast majority of Californians, including Chinese-American residents, oppose shark finning, Sutton said. He predicted the California bill, which passed the state Assembly last week, will receive state Senate approval and the governor's signature by year's end.

Sharks are a "charismatic mega-fauna," a term that conservationists use for large animals that fascinate the public, such as bears, lions and tigers. In the case of sharks, humans have a love-hate relationship with these ichthyological wonders of the oceans, which cover 70 percent of the world's surface and 90 percent of the global biosphere, Sutton said.

The world has three primary shark populations - off California, South Africa and Australia - and Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists are learning more about the species' life history, movements and habits from satellite tagging technology. Like many other large animals, sharks live long lives, reproduce slowly, bear live young and can't stand intensive fishing, hunting or habitat degradation, Sutton said.

Shark finning is illegal in U.S. waters, but no laws prohibit it on the high seas, which are beyond any nation's territorial waters. Sutton said history has shown that killing off apex predators -- grizzly bears, sharks, alligators and other creatures at the top of their respective food chains -- damages any ecosystem.

He said the campaign to stop shark finning is taking hold in China and among Chinese-Americans in California, where a growing number of young couples' wedding announcements carry the caveat: No shark fin soup will be served.

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