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U.S. Senate passes Shark Conservation Act, but at what cost?

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog-cation to bring you some exciting news- today, the U.S. Senate passed the Shark Conservation Act!

The act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year, closes important loopholes in current U.S. shark management policy by banning the practice of removing fins * at sea (for almost all species, more on this later). It also provides a framework for Federal officials to work with our trading partners that don’t similarly protect sharks.

It was expect to easily pass the Senate, but as we reported earlier this fall, Republican firebrand Tom Coburn blocked it and related conservation legislation. Senator Coburn’s stated objection to the bill was that it would cost too much, but the estimated cost according to GovTrack is less than $1 per American taxpayer.

Image from NoFishLeft.Wordpress.com

Since there are some slight changes from the version that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, the modified bill now goes back to the House for a vote. Once that happens, the bill becomes law and President Obama can sign it. I’ve been told to expect the House to vote on it later this week, and it is supposed to pass easily, but we’ll see how it goes. Update- the legislation passed the House of Representatives and has been sent to the President.

Many conservation NGOs are thrilled with today’s events. Matt Rand, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign, had this to say:

“The Senate has acted decisively today to help protect sharks, the predators at the top of the global marine food chain. The Shark Conservation Act would once and for all end the practice of shark finning in U.S. waters and give the United States the credibility to persuade other nations and international fishery managers to follow suit….As our marine environment becomes more and more threatened, we need further safeguards to keep ecosystems and top predator populations healthy. Domestic protections alone will not save sharks. The U.S. should use this act to bolster its position when negotiating for increased international protections”

I’m not quite as excited as Matt is. The new version includes the following wording:

“[The updates]do not apply to an individual engaged in commercial fishing for smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis) in that area of the waters of the United States located shoreward of a line drawn in such a manner that each point on it is 50 nautical miles from the baseline of a State… unless the total weight of smooth dogfish fins landed or found on board a vessel to which this subsection applies exceeds 12 percent of the total weight of smooth dogfish carcasses landed or found on board.”

In other words, fishermen can still remove the fins of smooth dogfish at sea (and can now do so with a much higher fin:body weight ratio than before) . This was arguably was what holding up the bill in the first place (that it would cause problems for what is arguably the first sustainable elasmobranch fishery in the world). It was discussed by Andrew (here) and Chuck (here) in great detail. In brief, the Senate has decided that smooth dog fishermen are allowed to remove fins at sea as long as the weight of the fins landed isn’t more than 12% of the weight of the rest of the shark.

This 12% number appears to come from thin air, since the worldwide standard is around 5% and the National Marine Fisheries Service calculated that the fin to weight ratio for smooth dogs is around 3.5%.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this compromise. On one hand, it bans finning for almost all shark species. On the other hand, the 12% number isn’t based on solid science, and there is the possibility of other small coastal sharks like dogfish being finned (after all, many species of elasmobranchs look very similar). At a time when conservation NGOs are pushing for the European Union to change their shark management policy and ICCAT is finally open to shark conservation, I don’t know if we should be backing down on our original goal of “no finning whatsoever”. On the other other hand (Fiddler on the Roof? Anyone? Anyone?), I’d be pretty happy if the dogfish fishery became the first sustainable elasmobranch harvest, and this could help. I’ll think about this for the rest of our blog-cation, but in the meantime, I’m very curious to see what you all think about it.

*= Removing the fins at sea but keeping the whole shark. Cutting the fins off and dumping the rest of the shark at sea has been illegal in U.S. waters since 1993, though still occurs in much of the world.

As an interesting aside, the bill was sponsored by John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee. It had 33 co-sponsors, which included 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain and 3 other Republicans.

UPDATE- From the Washington Post:

“When asked whether the president would sign the legislation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said they were still examining the smooth dogfish provision and other portions of the bill.

“We are happy that Congress has taken up shark conservation,” said Eric Schwaab, NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator, in a statement. “It’s a priority for our agency. However, the bill’s carve-out of one specific shark fishery presents major enforcement and implementation challenges, and we need to work to fix this loophole.””