This weekend, the state of Texas took an important step forward for global shark conservation by becoming the 10th state to ban the trade of shark fins. Shark finning, a brutal and wasteful practice, accounts for 73 million shark deaths every year. Although shark fin soup is a popular “delicacy,” there is nothing delicate about the way it is made. Shark finners slice off the pectoral and dorsal fins often while the shark is still alive, and throw it back overboard to drown or bleed to death. The senselessness of these assaults becomes more salient considering the fact that shark fins offer no flavor or nutritional value. Sharks are, in effect, being murdered for a culinary gimmick.
Although shark finning is banned in U.S. waters, it continues in other countries where fishing is more poorly regulated. Also, 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. Nine other states have banned the trade of shark fins, significantly cutting into the U.S. fin demand. Unfortunately, these bans caused much of the traffic to shift to Texas, so Governor Abbot’s signature on H.B. 1579 this 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 our oceans.
As apex predators, sharks are crucial to regulating and maintaining the balance of ecosystems by feeding on marine life. 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 these can harm other commercially valuable fish, as well as human health.
Sharks can also play roles in marine ecosystems that often go unseen. Without sharks, even 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 this habitat. Sea grass beds are also an important nursery ground, providing protection and nutrients for juvenile fish. For hundreds of millions of years, sharks have been crucial to the vitality and biodiversity of many ocean ecosystems.
The Texas ban on the trade and possession of shark fins is a welcome story. 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. Only one fatal incident occurs every two years, on average.
Compare that statistic with the number of sharks killed every year — over 100 million — most of those deaths occurring for the sake of shark fin soup. 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.