House follows Senate on shark protection

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The House adopted legislation Tuesday aimed at protecting sharks off U.S. coasts, though an exemption in the bill has raised concerns among federal fishery officials.

The Senate approved the bill Monday, and it now awaits President Obama's signature.

The Shark Conservation Act addresses loopholes in a law passed a decade ago in an effort to curb "finning," the practice of cutting off a shark's valuable fins and dumping its body overboard. It would require any vessel to land sharks with their fins attached and would prevent non-fishing vessels from transporting fins without their carcasses.

Shark finning, now prohibited off the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico but not the Pacific, has expanded worldwide due to rising demand for shark fin soup in Asia.

To win the support of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the bill allows those catching smooth dogfish off his state's coast to bring in fins separately as long as they account for no more than 12 percent of the total weight of the catch.

Del. Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam), who wrote the House version of the bill, told her colleagues just before the floor vote, "While I am not supportive of this exemption, I think it is important to note that this fishery represents less than 1 percent of all the shark fishing in the United States and that the restrictions on shark finning currently in the law will still apply to them."

When asked whether the president would sign the legislation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said they were still examining the smooth dogfish provision and other portions of the bill.

"We are happy that Congress has taken up shark conservation," said Eric Schwaab, NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator, in a statement. "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."

Most environmentalists back the measure on the grounds that it will help endangered shark populations recover.

"The law on the books was complicated and difficult to enforce," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, "but this new set of standards will ensure that sharks will no longer be mutilated and thrown back in the water to face a gruesome death just for shark fin soup."

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