Illinois Bans Shark Fin Trade

A black-tipped reef shark in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Photo: Ros in wonderland / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Illinois is now the first inland state to crack down on the sale of shark fins—an Asian delicacy used in a traditional soup. The new law, signed by Governor Pat Quinn last Sunday, bans the sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins in state. Although not bordered by an ocean, Illinois is a large importer of shark fins, according to ocean conservation organization Oceana. Similar bans exist in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, and Guam.

The shark finning industry is responsible for between 26 and 73 million shark deaths each year. Fisherman often hack off the fins while sharks are still alive, and then toss the fish back into the water to bleed to death. Shark fins have almost no flavor, but provide texture to the brothy soup. Signifying wealth and status, shark fin soup is often served at weddings or important business deals.

Many shark species are in trouble, and their populations are falling due to fishing, bycatch, and finning. Sharks now represent the greatest percentage of threatened marine species on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, according to Oceana. The IUCN also reports that 32 percent of open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction.

Legislation to ban shark fin sales was introduced in Florida, Maryland, and New York, but stalled before completing its route through the state legislature. Bans on the shark fin trade are pending in New Jersey and Delaware. Even China has recently taken symbolic steps against shark finning: On Tuesday the government announced that it would ban the serving of shark fin soup at official banquets.

Halting the consumption of shark fins will certainly help sharks, but it might also benefit human health. Shark fins contain a neurotoxin called Beta-methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA, according to recent research by scientists from the University of Miami. Produced by algae-like microbes called cyanobacteria, the researchers think that BMAA accumulates in apex predators like sharks. The neurotoxin is linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Illinois’ new law will hopefully act as model for other states pursuing similar bans. Shark finning is a brutal and wasteful practice that is depleting of one the ocean’s top predators. Sharks have existed for more than 400 million years, and strong action against shark finning will help them survive even longer.

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