SharkThis week marked a milestone in efforts to protect sharks. The Hawaii state legislature, in a near unanimous vote, passed Senate Bill 2169, which prohibits the possession, sale, and distribution of shark fins in the state. It is the first law of its kind. The bill was introduced by Sen. Clayton Hee, one of Hawaii’s most progressive politicians when it comes to animal and environmental issues. Hee has compared the practice of killing sharks for their fins to killing elephants for their ivory.

The cruel practice of shark finning is neatly summed up in the bill’s text:

“The practice of shark finning, where a shark is caught, the fin is cut off, and the shark is returned to the water, causes tens of millions of sharks to die a slow death each year. Some sharks starve to death, others are slowly eaten by other fish, and some drown because most sharks need to keep moving to force water through their gills for oxygen.”

Karyn Herrmann, a Honolulu marine biologist, notes that “sharks, which grow slowly, have late sexual maturity, bear few young and are especially vulnerable to overfishing.” And sharks are most certainly overfished. According to Hee, around 89 million sharks are killed for their fins globally each year. Shark Savers puts the number at over 100 million, and estimates that 97 to 99 percent of regional populations of shark species are already gone. At least 50 species of shark are at high risk for extinction, and scores more are threatened.

Since sharks are not quite as cuddly as dolphins, some cynics may wonder why we should bother protecting them. According to WildAid, “Sharks play a very important role in the oceans in a way that an average fish does not. Sharks are at the top of the food chain in virtually every part of every ocean. In that role, they keep populations of other fish healthy and in proper proportion for their ecosystem.” Without sharks, the entire ocean ecosystem would face collapse.

But how about Jaws? Aren’t sharks a danger to humans? In a word: No. Based on data from the Florida Museum of Natural History, on average, no more than five people are killed in shark attacks worldwide annually. That’s five people killed by sharks, versus 100 million sharks killed by people. Quite an unbalanced ratio.

Actually, shark can be dangerous … if you eat it. According to studies conducted by Hong Kong Baptist University and WildAid, a quarter of shark fins analyzed had mercury levels higher than the highest allowable standards set by the World Health Organization. And it isn’t just mercury, as shark can have high levels of arsenic as well. Ironically, in China, shark fin soup is traditionally thought of as something of a health food. Some believe it is an aphrodisiac, which is even more ironic, as mercury can lead to impotence and loss of sex drive in men.

Considering Hawaii’s large Chinese-American population, it is surprising that the issues of tradition and culture did not raise their ugly heads much during the debates over the shark fin ban. Maybe it is because sharks are revered in Hawaiian culture. As Sen. Hee (himself part Chinese and part Hawaiian) explains, “the shark is the aumakua, the family guardian of Hawaiians.”

Or maybe people just realize what is truly important. Wesley Fong, past president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and a leader in the Chinatown community, said that given the choice between protecting a gourmet dish and preserving the ocean ecosystem: “The ocean’s ecology should come first.”

Former Hawaii first lady Vicky Cayetano probably put it best: “Sharks are more valuable in the ocean than in soup.”

Photo Credit: Tanaka Juuyoh