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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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Can the spirit of Christmas defeat Kim Jong Il?

A South Korean church has erected a giant Christmas tree near the North Korean border. As gestures go, it's better than missiles I guess:

 The method of delivery was a giant, brightly lit Christmas tree, reportedly visible from Kaesong, the border city on the northern side of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South. The tree serves a propaganda role, reminding of repression and the lack of religious freedom in the North. Yet even in the tumult of plummeting North-South relations, it may also serve as a beacon of continuing Korean brotherhood.

In previous year's South Korean officials have prevented the Yoido Full Gospel Church, one of the world's largest Christian congregations, from setting up the tree out of free of provoking North Korea. This year, local officials have expressed concern over possible North Korean retaliation: 

 Concerns have been raised that North Korea might attempt to attack the tower on the hill, particularly given that it faces an area of the North which houses a large number of Chosun People’s Army personnel.

However, pointing out that yesterday’s artillery exercise on Yeonpyeong Island would be no justification for any attack on the lights, [Gyeonggi governor] Kim [Moon Soo] said, “It preserved very well the sanctity of our national sovereignty,” before emphasizing, “There should be no further splits in public opinion.”

Nevertheless, North Korea regards the Christmas lights as one element of psychological warfare, and as such may feel that they are a suitable target, particularly following yesterday’s exercise, which Pyongyang publicly vowed to respond to but has not, as yet, done so.

If any place on earth needs a little peace and goodwill this holiday season it's the Korean Peninsula. Here's hoping Kim Jong Il isn't feeling grinchy.