Hammerhead shark, © Barry Peters

A Step Forward for Sharks

This month, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) stepped back, in part, from an unnecessary battle against state efforts to protect sharks. It all began last May when NMFS issued draft regulations stating that the federal Shark Conservation Act (SCA) would preempt state bans on trade in shark fins. The agency clearly stepped in where it wasn’t its place because Congress never intended the SCA to deter states from taking a stronger stand to protect sharks from the fin trade. Nevertheless, NMFS jumped into the arena at the first sign of conflict without taking a hard look at the facts. If the agency had looked before it leaped, it would have seen that the state and federal laws govern different areas, can coexist without conflict, and are a good thing for both sharks and fisheries. Instead, NMFS’ stance on state-level shark fin trade bans may have deterred other states from enacting their own laws to protect the many threatened species of sharks.

A NOAA agent counts confiscated shark fins (© NOAA)

A NOAA agent counts confiscated shark fins (© NOAA)

Defenders, along with other conservation groups, submitted comment letters throughout the spring and summer, expressing our concerns and laying out the legal arguments, demonstrating NMFS’ overreaching claims. The state laws ban trade in shark fins, while the SCA bans finning of sharks in federal waters. The state laws complement, rather than hinder, the federal law.

NMFS finally saw the light, but don’t expect a “mea culpa” from the agency. It didn’t drop the issue, but rather gave state laws banning trade in shark fins in Maryland, Washington, and California the green light for now. Although in the end any protection for sharks is good news, we never should have had to fight this particular battle in the first place, and for this, NMFS doesn’t deserve a pat on the back. When NMFS issues the final regulations implementing the SCA, it should eliminate the preemption language altogether.

We have a lot of work to do in the continual crusade to protect these apex predators, and we’re still a long way from sustainable management and recovery for sharks. The fight to protect sharks is even more critical now, with a new scientific report finding that 25% of the world’s shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. But hope is on the horizon as we sign on to support a bill in Hawaii that would make great strides in protecting sharks from cruel harm and harassment. (Note to NMFS – this bill only applies to state waters.)

Anne Russell Gregory, Conservation Law & Endangered Species Coordinator