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U.S. Congress closes shark finning loophole

On Monday, the U.S. Senate, followed by the House on Tuesday, passed a groundbreaking shark conservation bill banning the practice of shark finning in the Pacific. The bill closes a loophole in earlier legislation that had banned shark finning off the coast of the Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico. The bill also empowers federal authorities to identify and list which fishing vessels come from countries with different shark conservation rules than the United States.

Shark finning is a brutal practice where sharks are captured, their dorsal fins are sliced off, and they are thrown back into the water to bleed to death. According to some estimates, shark finning alone is responsible for the deaths of up to 73 million sharks annually, resulting in shark populations that have been depleted by as much as 90 percent in the past few decades. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service reports that 1.2 million pounds of sharks were caught in 2009 in the Pacific, although it doesn't specify what portion were fins. Many species of sharks are highly endangered -- there are only about 3,500 great white sharks left in the world.

Shark fins are used in shark fin soup, a (not particularly tasty, in this blogger's opinion) delicacy across much of East Asia, used by upper classes to demonstrate wealth, taste, and prestige at wedding banquets and corporate feasts. With China's growing middle and upper classes eating more and more of this soup each year, activists and scientists worry that shark populations are being depleted beyond sustainable levels.

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

While any effort to regulate this $1 billion a year industry is laudable, the trade in shark fins is extremely difficult to monitor and much of it happens outside U.S. waters. For example, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that 50 to 80 percent of the global market for shark fins is centered in Hong Kong. While many Americans are aware of the environmental implications of shark finning, that same consciousness has yet to hit the market that really matters -- China. Last year, for example, a Chinese wedding industry group survey found that only about 5 percent of couples choose shark-free menus at their weddings.

ANDREW ROSS/AFP/Getty Images

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