Amanda Keledjian is a marine scientist working on Oceana U.S.A.'s responsible fishing campaign. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Across the globe, sharks are being murdered for a culinary gimmick — shark fin soup, even though shark fins offer virtually no flavor or nutritional value. Shark finners slice off sharks' pectoral and dorsal fins, often while the animals are still alive, and throw them back overboard to drown or bleed to death. According to the most recent statistics from the journal Ecology Letters, shark finning accounts for 73 million shark deaths every year.
This weekend, the state of Texas took an important step forward for global shark conservation by becoming the 10th U.S. state to ban the trade of shark fins. Although shark finning is banned in U.S. waters, it continues in other countries where fishing is more poorly regulated. And even though finning itself is illegal, many U.S. states have no rules against the trade of shark fins, allowing them to be imported and exported within the country.
During the past two years, however, there has been a growing national movement to end the shark fin trade. Existing state bans are significantly cutting into U.S. fin demand, though unfortunately those bans caused much of the traffic to shift to Texas.
Texas governor Greg Abbot's signature on H.B. 1579 last Saturday was a huge win for sharks. But like any sensible environmental protection, the benefit extends far beyond the protection of any single group of animals. Sharks play a vital role in the health of the oceans.
For hundreds of millions of years, sharks have been crucial to the vitality and biodiversity of many ocean ecosystems. As apex predators, sharks are crucial to regulating and maintaining the balance of ecosystems by feeding on marine life.
For example, in the 1980s, a large decline in the local shark population in North Carolina was partially responsible for the collapse of a century-old scallop fishery. As blacktip sharks were overfished, cownose rays were left without a natural predator, and their population rapidly expanded. The rays primarily eat scallops, clams and oysters, and their unchecked feeding left little for the mollusk industry. The disappearance of filter-feeding bivalves also reduced the water quality, leading to algae blooms and dead zones along the coast. Changes like those can harm other commercially valuable fish, as well as human health.
Even sharks' indirect impacts are critical: Without sharks, important habitats like sea grass beds would suffer. Localized overgrazing by animals such as dugongs and sea turtles can affect the health of grasses, but when a shark is present, the grazing animals will change their locations. By redirecting grazing over a wider area, sharks actually influence the health of the habitat. Sea grass beds are also an important nursery ground, providing protection and nutrients for juvenile fish. [No Health Benefits to Eating Controversial Shark Fins]
The Texas ban on the trade and possession of shark fins is a welcome outcome. Usually when sharks are in the news, it's because of unfortunate incidents, like the recent shark attacks in Oak Island, North Carolina. However, sharks do not naturally prey on humans. Shark bites may make exciting headlines, but it is important to remember that they are exceptionally rare. In the United States, only one fatal incident occurs every two years, on average.
Compare that statistic with the number of sharks killed every year — more than 100 million when trophy fishing, fishing bycatch and other threats are included in the total.
The thought of seeing a fin in the water may seem terrifying, but a fin in a bowl of soup is much more frightening for the long-term health of our oceans. Some may see these ancient fish as a threat to humans, but in reality, humans are the biggest threat to shark populations around the world. Without sharks, the ocean would be a much scarier place. And thankfully, because Texas passed this bill, the oceans just got a bit less scary for sharks.
Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. 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 Live Science.