A few weeks ago, I asked readers to voice their support for a proposed anti-shark finning bill in Hawaii. Those of you who follow me on Twitter have seen numerous updates about this important issue. I am pleased to report that the bill passed both the House and Senate this morning, and it will soon go to the desk of the Governor of Hawaii. If signed (and everyone is pretty optimistic that it will be signed), it will be the strongest shark conservation law in North America- and one of the strongest in the world. Stefanie Brendl, President of Shark Allies and owner of Hawaii Shark Encounter worked harder than anyone on this issue, and she has agreed to answer a few questions about it for us.
WhySharksMatter (WSM): What exactly does this bill do?
Stefani Brendl (SB): [It] Prohibits possession, sale and trade of shark fins. The definition of shark fins includes all fins that are naturally attached, which essentially stops all taking of sharks.
WSM: Can you please summarize what you’ve had to do as this bill progressed?
SB: I have been working with several other people to take this bill around the capitol. Mostly it was myself and Inga Gibson from the Humane Society of the United States. For hearings we also had Ginny Tiu and Vicky Cayetano join our efforts, as they could express the chinese point of view.Inga and I made sure it would get hearings with the different committees, which would require meetings with committee chairs and members and other groups that were opposing the bill. Lots of education and clarification about the language of the bill, about shark conservation in general and about shark legislation in other States/countries.The bill had to make it through 5 committees, several floor votes and the conference committee, all in a very short time. It was deferred once and we had an intense 48 hours trying to bring it back to life. This required bringing in influential community members for personal meetings with the legislators that had killed the bill, plus an all out campaign of letters and phone calls from supporters.We also worked with the different groups that opposed the bill to find solutions, either through amendments, exemptions or by changing their mind through education about finning.We also made sure the progress of the bill received attention from the press/media.One of my biggest jobs, and probably most valuable contributions was my connection with all the other shark organizations. For each step I rallied the troops to write and call in support of the bill. Through this network we were able to get hundreds of testimonies (not generic petitions) to each of the committee hearings. When a committee chair was reluctant to schedule a hearing we would put pressure on with emails and calls to the offices.I also made sure Senator Hee was updated on the progress every day so he could add his influence and advice whenever possible.We also helped to put together a press conference at a critical time, when the bill was stuck in the conference committee. Basically it was a full time job that was incredibly intense every step of the way.
WSM: There have been several stumbling blocks along the way, times when people believed that the bill wasn’t going to pas. Can you please describe these and how they were overcome?
SB: Our biggest stumbling block was Rep Karamatsu. (see next questions answer). He single handedly killed the bill and tried to prevent any progress unless all “stakeholders” were happy with the bill. Which is basically impossible. That would have meant we would have had to make allowances/exemptions for fishermen, researchers, and the consumption/marketing of shark fin soup. There is no point in having such a bill, because it would do nothing.Some of the objections by Senate and House members were easy to overcome. Education was key. Many people still don’t realize how devastating shark finning is, and that is was happening in Hawaii. Most legislators quickly changed their minds after some pictures, videos and statistics.The obvious push back was from the chinese community. Ginny and Vicky went to most of the important chinese restaurants and talked to the owners. Many of them didn’t realize how bad the practice was, and how much it was offending all the other cultures in Hawaii (most dramatically of course Hawaiian natives). Once they understood, most of them said they would not oppose to a ban of shark fin soup, as long as it was across the board, in all of Hawaii.Of course there were some people that were trying to turn this into a cultural issue, saying that we were discriminating against chinese culture. But we had enough chinese support that said that shark fin soup was not cultural, it’s just a status symbol. Chinese culture can do without it, especially if it hurts the rest of the world.Also, most average chinese never have shark fin soup, because they can’t afford it. So were weren’t really offending the little guys. Also, the fact that we had Vicky and Ginny (both chinese) speaking out about the fact that “bound feet” used to be tradition too, and that sometimes these traditions have to change, made a huge impact. It actually opened up the communication between the younger generations that have felt this way, but didn’t have the courage to speak to their parents about it.We expected the fishermen to protest, but they didn’t, because your everyday fisherman already has to land sharks whole here in Hawaii, and they don’t bother with that anymore. It is too much of a hassle. Therefore they couldn’t make money from fins. The long liners were still making money from finning in federal waters, and brought these fins to the market in Hawaii. This law will prevent them from doing so.DLNR (Dept of Land and Nat. Resources) was initially concerned about the bill, but once the language became simple, they were in full support, because it actually makes enforcement infinitely easier than for the current law.What surprised us was the fact that the researchers and aquarium administrators came out in opposition. But that was quickly remedied by an exemption for research and educational projects. The unseen forces and opposition were the most difficult ones to battle. The ones that would not show up to hearings or even publicly state their arguments. We suspected that there were other powerful House members that were influencing Rep Karamatsu. They in turn might have been influenced by business associates or influential community members that pulled their strings from the background.
WSM:Who were the bill’s biggest supporters and why? Who were the biggest opponents and why?
SB: [The] Biggest Supporters in Senate was Senator Hee. He introduced the bill and in the end, after the bill had been changed and watered down by many amendment while it travelled through the House committees, he fought for a version that brought it back to a simple, strict and narrow language that is very enforceable and give complete protection.There were no major opponents in the Senate.The biggest Supporter in the House was Rep McKelvey. He had to deal with strong opposition amongst his ranks and despite considerable pressure was able to help us keep the bill alive.The major opposition came from Rep Karamatsu. We are not really sure why! It was in his committee that the bill died. He also tried to influence the votes every time the bill was voted on by the full house floor, and he also worked hard to keep it held up in conference. It took immense pressure every time to convince him to push it along. And he was extremely unhappy about all the public pressure. His arguments did not make sense and when we followed up on his concerns they were usually unfounded. For example he stated that the fishermen didn’t agree with the bill, but we had never seen them at hearings, and when we inquired it turned out they were supportive of the bill (because the current law creates an unfair advantage for long liners that take fins in federal waters). Karamatsu also insisted that he was concerned about the balance of the ocean, and that “too little sharks aren’t good, but too many aren’t either!”. Why he had such a strong opposition against this bill, and was willing to stand up against everyone else in the Senate and House is puzzling. There must have been very strong motivating forces for sure.
WSM: What is your next project?
SB: Heading to California to meet up with other groups to discuss possible legislation in other States. I will pass along a case history of this bill, along with the pitfalls and unexpected opposition we encountered. Also looking to join forces with them on other projects, since our cooperation was so effective in this case.
WSM: How can my readers and I help you?
SB: At this point there isn’t much to do. We have to wait for the Governor to either sign the bill or veto it. We are in communication with her office and have given her all the support letters and material we have. There isn’t a great concern that she might veto.
WSM: Is there anything that you’d like to tell us?
SB: This bill has given other groups hope that they can pursue similar legislation within their regions. I believe the impact of this will be much bigger than we had imagined.I also learned that one persons effort can make a difference. The legislators treated me with great respect and were open to learn about the demise of sharks. You just have to find the ones that are also willing to take a risk to help create change.