Will Proposed Federal Rule Effectively Relax Stricter State Bans on Shark Finning?

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Marine agency’s proposed rule may preempt more protective state and territorial laws.

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Each year, fishermen kill approximately one hundred million sharks for their fins, fueling what has become a multi-billion dollar shark-fin market.  Some state and territorial governments currently regulate this market by banning the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins.

However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently proposed a rule that may preempt, and effectively relax, these strict state laws.

NMFS’s proposed rule, which would implement provisions the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, would ban the removal of shark fins when fishermen are at sea.  It also would ban the possession, transfer, or reception of independent shark fins on fishing vessels and the landing of independent shark fins or shark carcasses without their fins.  However, the proposed regulation would potentially cause conflicts with certain state laws because it allows fishermen to land their boats with whole sharks and then cut off their fins once the sharks have been brought back from sea.

In Hawaii, State Senator Clayton Hee has argued that NMFS’s proposed rule would undermine his state’s shark conservation efforts.  He has claimed that the federal agency is focusing on the economic interests of long-line fishermen and not on the damage that the shark fin market does to the ecosystem.

In response to the proposed rule, non-profit groups are beseeching the U.S. government to let the state laws stand.  The PEW Charitable Trusts started a petition asking NMFS to implement the Shark Conservation Act without undermining state regulations.  In addition, Shark Attack Survivor for Shark Conservation, a group that lobbied for the Shark Conservation Act, wrote a letter to NMFS explaining that if it weakened the more restrictive state laws, the agency could put sharks at a greater risk.

Members of Congress from California, New York, Florida, and Guam recently wrote a letter to NMFS, an advance copy of which was given to the Associated Press.  The letter advocates for complementary federal regulations that will work with state and territorial laws to fight shark finning.

Michael Tosatto, the Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Regional Office, has reportedly suggested that “sharks are not a conservation issue.”  For example, the agency recently announced that one population of great white sharks will not be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

On the other hand, in the NMFS’s 2011 Shark Finning Report, the agency has explained that long lives, late maturation, and low potential reproductive capacity leave sharks susceptible to overfishing.  As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list includes almost seventy shark species listed as critically endangered or endangered.  In its 2011 report, NMFS determined that although only about 12% of shark species were overfished, the overfishing status was unknown or undefined for almost 65% of shark species.

The extent to which the NMFS proposed rule would preempt of state and territorial laws may depend on how states interpret their laws.  The proposed rule does explain that the agency is working with states and territories to avoid possible areas of conflict; nevertheless, the agency does not express its intention to avoid preempting stricter state laws.

NMFS will be accepting public comments on its proposed rule through July 8.