It's a Happy New Year for Sharks

Credit: Copyright Gary Stokes / Sea Shepherd 2011

Sharks have had a rough run of it. Just recently, an estimated 18,000 shark fins were discovered drying on a rooftop in Hong Kong, placed there by the owners to avoid public scrutiny. Representing just a fraction of the estimated 26-73 million sharks killed worldwide each year, the recent discovery was a graphic reminder of the ongoing slaughter of these magnificent animals for their fins.

The new year, however, also brought good news:

Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a decision that should give sharks everywhere--and their human allies--cause to celebrate. The court rejected a request by industry groups to stop California from enforcing its recently-passed shark fin ban. By allowing the state to enforce its eco-friendly law, the court reached the correct answer to some tricky legal issues, and set an important precedent.

The court case deals with a law that was passed in 2011, designed to help protect sharks. Responding to dwindling shark populations worldwide, the California legislature enacted Assembly Bills 376 and 853, collectively known as the Shark Fin Ban. These bills were signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 7, 2011, and they prohibit the possession, sale, or trade of shark fins in the state of California.

Why is it important to ban shark fins in California? As noted above, sharks are killed by the tens of millions for their fins, which command a high price in certain markets. Often the sharks are killed with the brutal practice of "finning," wherein a shark's fins are hacked off and the animal is dumped back into the water to bleed to death, drown, or be eaten by other animals. Many people think this practice alone is reason enough to ban shark fins. Furthermore, the slaughter of sharks worldwide has massive impacts on ocean ecosystem health. When an apex predator like a shark is removed from an ecosystem, its prey species experiences a population boom. This, in turn, affects the next species down the food chain--sometimes extending all the way down the chain to species like shellfish and shrimp. These "trophic cascades" can alter an ecosystem profoundly, sometimes in irreversible ways.

Sharks are vulnerable, too, despite their fearsome image. They tend to be slow-growing, they reach sexual maturity at a late age, and generally they produce few offspring. For these reasons sharks cannot withstand high levels of mortality, and their populations drop quickly when subjected to fishing. We've learned this the hard way; one study estimates shark populations worldwide have declined more than 90% in recent history.

The California state legislature recognized all of these things--that millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins, often by finning, and that this hurts our ocean ecosystems--and resolved to do what it could to help. By banning shark fins, the legislature closed off California as an end market for shark fins, thereby reducing global demand and, hopefully, the number of sharks killed each year.

Sharks and their allies cheered when the California shark fin ban was enacted, but inevitably, some people were unhappy. Several groups of merchants and restaurants were vocal in their opposition to the ban, as they were currently profiting from the trade in shark fins. Two of them, the Chinatown Neighborhood Association and Asian Americans for Political Advancement, sued the state, hoping to convince a court to strike down the fin ban.

Plaintiffs in Chinatown Neighborhood Association v. Brown claimed the ban was racially motivated and intended to discriminate against Chinese-Americans, who are the primary consumers of shark fins (in the form of shark fin soup). They also claimed the ban was unnecessary, because not every single species of shark in the world is in danger of extinction yet, and because federal law already bans the act of finning in U.S. waters. None of these are good arguments, and the court rejected them in an initial skirmish last week. In denying the Plaintiffs' request for an injunction, the court accurately noted that the California legislature was trying to help sharks and ocean ecosystem health, not discriminate against Chinese-Americans, when it passed the fin ban. The court also correctly explained that sharks need not be entirely extinct, in order for us to be legitimately concerned about them. Finally, the court clearly understood the mechanism by which the California shark fin ban works--that is, by closing off an end use market, the ban reduces global demand and thereby helps to reduce the slaughter of sharks.

At this point the lawsuit is not over; the recent court order doesn't dismiss the case, it just denies the Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction. That said, it's unlikely the Plaintiffs will ever win, unless they somehow provide new evidence or new arguments--which is not really possible, since the facts are more or less undisputed. Everybody at the time of the law's passage recognized it was intended to help sharks, not discriminate against Chinese-Americans, and the scientific and economic underpinnings of the law are well-established. So although their lawsuit is still alive, Plaintiffs may realize that they have nothing to stand on, and voluntarily dismiss the case. One can at least hope.

Credit: Photo by Steve Garner, via Flickr Creative Commons

So even though the lawsuit is not over, it's a happy new year for sharks. These are complicated issues, and the court did an admirable job sorting them out. By learning the science and economics, and correctly applying the law, the U.S. District Court has provided an important precedent upholding the constitutionality of state shark fin bans. Hopefully this will inform other lawsuits--such as the similar case in California state court--and lead to a smoother road for shark advocacy in the future.

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