Expert Voices

Sharks Gain Protections in India, Will U.S. Follow Suit? (Op-Ed)

Shark fins drying in the sun.
Shark fins drying in the sun in Kaohsiung before processing. 30 percent of the world’s shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction. (Image credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group)

Wayne Pacelle is the president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This Op-Ed is adapted from a post on the blog A Humane Nation, where the content ran before appearing in LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Last week, a federal appellate court rejected arguments from business groups challenging California's ban on shark fins as discriminatory and at odds with federal fisheries laws. Surprisingly, the Obama administration had filed a brief in support of shark-fin dealers and their bid to immediately enjoin implementation of the California law.

The panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's January decision to keep California's shark-fin law in place until a final judgment on the legal claims from shark-finning proponents is issued. It's a big preliminary win for the state of California and for The HSUS, which considers the sale of shark fins to be in the same category as selling ivory trinkets or elephant tusk — all cruel, unnecessary and deeply wasteful treatments of animals who are vital to their ecosystems and to ecotourism.

Meanwhile, Humane Society International (HSI) is making great gains globally on the shark-finning issue. Two days ago, India's Ministry of Environment and Forest, which operates under the authority of the Central Government of India, brought into force a 'fins naturally attached' policy to prohibit shark finning. The policy makes it illegal for any fishermen to land sharks anywhere on the coasts of India without their fins naturally attached to the body.

Given that the Pew Environment Group has ranked India as second, globally, in its haul from shark-fishing — from individual fishermen hauling all the sharks they can accommodate onto narrow hand-built catamarans to large fishing fleets with dedicated shark fishing trawlers — this is a monumental victory.

That victory came about because earlier this year, HSI India began a dialogue with India's Ministry of Environment and Forests in collaboration with the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, the country's largest shark-fishing community.

More than 66 species of sharks are reportedly found in the Indian seas. Fishermen have killed millions of sharks each year in Indian waters to export the fins to East Asia, Southeast Asia, and even Europe and the United States. Reports from India's Marine Products Development Authority have shown that from 2010 to 2011, India's export of shark fins to China alone was 101 metric tons.

Despite what may be unsustainable levels of killing, India had not put into place any concrete measures for the management of its shark populations. Even India's Wildlife Protection Act, which offers the highest level of protection to 10 species of sharks, including the whale shark, had so far proved insufficient for safeguarding these animals from commercial killing. By imposing the highest level of penalties upon any fishermen found with detached fins, the ministry has taken bold steps forward in safeguarding sharks.

While the government of India has made a bold proclamation, the Obama administration is moving in the opposite direction, specifically by seeking to nullify nearly a dozen state and Pacific-territory laws to crack down on the sale and possession of shark fins. In the case of the California law, the administration maintains it "obstructs the use of fishery resources lawfully obtained in federal waters."

The ruling by the federal courts is a boon to The HSUS efforts to defend state laws, and we hope the administration takes this important signal from the courts and gets back on the right side of this issue.

Pacelle's most recent Op-Ed was "Dogfighting Bust, 3 Years in the Making, Marks Transformational Change". This article was adapted from "'Fintastic' Outcomes for Sharks," which first appeared as on the HSUS blog A Humane Nation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.