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Senate passes bill to protect Pacific sharks from fin trade

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; A03

The Senate passed a landmark shark conservation bill Monday that would close loopholes that had allowed the lucrative shark fin trade to continue operations off the West Coast.

The measure would require all vessels to land sharks with fins attached and would prevent nonfishing vessels from transporting fins without their carcasses. Cutting off a shark's fins and then dumping its body overboard, which is now banned off the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico but not in the Pacific, has expanded worldwide because of a rising demand for shark fin soup in Asia.

"Shark finning has fueled massive population declines and irreversible disruption of our oceans," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the bill's author, in a statement. "Finally we've come through with a tough approach to tackle this serious threat to our marine life."

To become a law this year, the bill would need to be passed by the House, which could act as soon as Tuesday. The lower chamber has passed similar legislation written by Del. Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam), and backers said they hope the House will act in the scant time it has left.

"It's a real nail-biter," said Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for the advocacy group Oceana.

Although Congress passed legislation aimed at protecting sharks a decade ago, shark finning has continued because the fins fetch a far higher price than the meat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, 1.2 million pounds of sharks were caught last year in the Pacific, although it does not say what portion of those landings were fins.

The bill also would allow federal authorities to identify and list which fishing vessels hail from nations that do not have the same shark conservation rules as the United States.

Although the legislation enjoys bipartisan support, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked it Sept. 29 on the grounds that implementing it would cost taxpayers money. The bill sponsors offset the measure's five-year, $5 million cost by cutting that amount from a federal fisheries grant program over the next two years.

"The bill was snatched from the jaws of defeat," said Matt Rand, who directs global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group, adding that it would help federal officials when they negotiate for stricter global catch limits. "It gives the U.S. a further leadership role and mandate to push for shark conservation from other countries."

The Obama administration has pushed for cuts in global shark-fishing quotas, with mixed results. In November, international authorities banned the catching of oceanic whitetip and several types of hammerhead sharks in the Atlantic, but international negotiators declined to impose trade restrictions last spring.

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