On the same day that the Shark Protection Act passed in Congress this week, cartoonist Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon, happened to be hand-delivering more than 3,600 letters in support of shark protection to NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Eric Schwaab in Washington, DC.
The letters, all individually illustrated by visitors to the San Francisco Aquarium of the Bay, appealed to the head of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to support scientifically-based effective management measures, such as catch limits and keeping fins naturally attached.
I asked Jim what he thought about the Congressional move and he pointed out that the Act allows for finning of smooth dogfish shark. This species exemption “puts a huge hole in the policy,” he said.
The short version of the story, takes us straight to Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, the state with a big lobby for small smooth dogfish — the fishery represents less than 1 percent of shark fishing in the United States. “It’s a small fishery,” said Toomey. “I think Burr was jumping on the Republican obstructionist bandwagon more than anything else. He wanted an exception to the overall ‘finzon’ rule.”
Finzon? Finzoff? The fins-on rule required that all sharks caught in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) be landed with their fins on. Toomey explained that this would provide:
1) Easier Enforcement: Any boat caught with a shark and its fins separated was subject to big punishment; any boat caught with shark fins and no sharks was subject to bigger punishment;
2) Shark Management: Some species of sharks are hard to recognize with their fins off;
3) Bragging Rights: If the United States of America had a bullet-proof shark management policy with no species exceptions, we could bring this precedent to ICCAT and other international forums and push for this policy on a global scale.
If the sharks and the fins have to stay on the same boat to stay legal, then what’s the argument for cutting them off?
“The initial reasons Burr's office gave for opposing the Act was that smooth dogfish are unique,” Toomey said. Burr argued that if the fins are not removed, the fins become spoiled because of migration of urea from the body to the fins after death. “Pew commissioned a Duke study refuting this claim,” Toomey said, who uploaded the study to Sherman’s Lagoon.
“I happened to be down at the Duke marine lab giving a lecture when Pew released this study, and got a few of the Ph.D. candidates blogging about it in the North Carolina communities,” he added.
Burr then retreated, taking the position that finning was more efficient for smooth dogfishers and that the financial incentives of the rule to remove fins after landing were prohibitive. “But this argument could be used for any regulation,” says Toomey. “Regulation makes industry less efficient in general.”
Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post reported:
Now the Shark Conservation Act is on President Obama’s desk for approval. The Act “is good because it extends the finzon rule to the Pacific, but it's bad because it doesn't give the U.S. very good precedent to take to international meetings,” says Toomey. Spain could claim a species exemption with its blue sharks, for example. “The loophole is big enough to allow all finning countries business as usual.”
That’s something Obama will have to consider in signing the legislation. As Schwaab said in a statement to the Post: "It's a priority for our agency. However, the bill's carve-out of one specific shark fishery presents major enforcement and implementation challenges, and we need to work to fix this loophole."
Illustrations: Elvis Shark, By Natalie Taylor of Oakland Calif.; Sherman of Sherman's Lagoon, By Jim Toomey.