I am delighted to be able to provide a post that is slightly more substantial than my usual offering. Last week I was contacted by a representative of a group of law students (called "Sharky) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong who are working on a project titled: A Research Study on the Need for Legal Protection of Sharks in Hong Kong. The main objective of this project is to assess the extent to which sharks should be protected by legislation in Hong Kong.
The group has reached out to many groups that are working for shark conservation and are currently compiliing and analyzing the results of the questionnaire that they distributed.
As many of you who have followed my shark updates likely already know, Hong Kong represents the epicenter for the shark fin trade. It is great to see this group of law students assuming a lead role in this issue!
Sharky has kindly agreed to let me publish their questions and my corresponding answers on this blog:
1. From your experience/knowledge, what are the factors/reasons that (can) cause the US government to secure legislation to ban shark fin? (e.g. in California)
This is definitely a complex question. I am able to comment on some of the generic factors that have led to various American states banning shark fin possession/trade, but I think that the motivation to seek this sort of legislation really varies on a state-by-state and person-by-person basis:
i) Shark finning/conservation is an environmental issue – One approach to this issue is to try to convince legislators of the importance of maintaining sharks in the oceans. They are top predators, they help structure ecosystems, and they are critical to healthy reefs! We are removing them at an alarming and unsustainable rate. I think this motivates some politicians.
ii) Shark finning/conservation is an animal welfare issue – Shark finning is incentivized by the fact that the fins are worth more than shark meat. Fishermen cut off the fins and throw the animal back. Society has not traditionally empathized with sharks—they are still stereotyped as
blood-thirsty man-eaters as a result of movies like Jaws. I think that the animal welfare aspect motivates some legislators.
iii) Shark finning/conservation is a “winnable” issue – It is difficult in many places in Canada and the U.S. to secure comprehensive environmental and/or conservation laws. Restricting shark fin possession and/or trade is an issue that can be addressed through a law or regulation and can be dealt with quickly; therefore, it is winnable and that makes it attractive!
iv) Shark finning/conservation is an international issue that is not being sufficiently addressed at the international level – The first question that I always get asked is something like “why should we take action to save sharks, shouldn’t this be dealt with by international law?” In short, my answer is “yes… but!” International law and international cooperation is critical if we hope to stop the decline in sharks that we are witnessing, but history indicates that achieving international shark conservation will take a long time. Therefore, if there is local action
that can occur it makes sense to pursue it.
v) Shark finning/conservation has a local dimension – Shark finning occurs in the ocean, and often in areas beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation, but the products are being used everywhere around the world in a variety of forms. If we cannot stop the unsustainable harvest of sharks we can try to limit the availability of shark fins.
vi) Many different groups now care about sharks – Shark conservation is an issue that concerns many groups. As a traditional Chinese dish, restricting shark fin availability obviously
disproportionately impacts local Chinese American and Chinese Canadian populations, but at the same time there are a variety of groups that support increased shark conservation including: scuba divers and ecotourists; environmental conservation groups; animal welfare groups; sustainable food groups; etc.
2. Can you tell us more about the US law development on shark protection?
The American push for shark conservation has really taken two forms. First, the federal government took steps in 2010/2011 to reduce shark finning in American waters (i.e., the 200 nautical miles off of America’s coast line). The Shark Conservation Act of 2010 did away with a few loopholes that had allowed shark finning to continue. Now, it is illegal to fin sharks in these waters. The second level of action has taken place at the state level where a number of
states (Hawaii, California, Washington State, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon, as well as a few American territories) have enacted state law that restricts shark fin possession and trade. Essentially, this legislation makes it illegal to possess shark fins, unless your possession is accompanied by a permit. This is an innovative way to address the problem of shark finning because it targets the end user rather than the fisherman that is out in the ocean catching
sharks. As I am sure you are aware, this push for state-level action started in Hawaii (where many Pacific fishing vessels would store shark fins), spread to some other mid-Pacific islands, then took off in California and the west coast before spreading to Illinois and now the east coast. Last I checked, the state of New York was also looking at passing a similar law which would be an awesome step! When we designed our campaign in 2010/2011 targeting Virginia, only Hawaii had enacted this law. We published an opinion-editorial in the Richmond
Times-Dispatch about our efforts and shark conservation, which can be read here.
3. For the Canadian Law that you have mentioned, how is the development of law on shark protection? Or how are the people’s attitudes towards shark conservation?
Canada has also taken steps to promote shark conservation. Our federal government recently considered a proposed law that would have restricted the ability for shark fins to be imported into Canada if they were detached from the shark. This bill did not become law as it was voted down in the House of Commons. While we have not had action at the provincial level (the analog to American states), we have had a number of municipalities (cities) that have introduced municipal bylaws that restrict shark fin possession, sale, trade, and consumption. These have been quite contentious since municipalities have limited jurisdiction to enact
bylaws (essentially, they can only enact bylaws that conform with the jurisdiction that has been given to them by the province). The bylaw that was enacted in Toronto was challenged in court at the end of 2012 and the court found that the City of Toronto lacked jurisdiction to enact this ban and ruled to invalidate the bylaw. No other Canadian municipalities have enacted a ban
since this decision came out.
4. What do you think Hong Kong can do to save sharks?
Hong Kong represents the epicenter of shark fin trade and shark fin consumption. This unique
position presents both challenges and opportunities! The major challenge I perceive is that the shark fin industry is both lucrative and rooted in tradition, meaning many people in Hong Kong have a vested interest in seeing it continue. The major opportunity is that any successful change that occurs in Hong Kong will have more impact than most changes we have seen so far around
The first question you have to consider is the jurisdiction issue. How are law-making powers divided in China? If you want to target possession/sale restrictions, which level of government has authority to control this? If you want to target import/trade restrictions, which level of government has authority to control this?
The next question you have to consider is how do you want to approach the law-makers? Is this
something that you want to approach as a group of law students or do you want to align yourselves with an established organization that brings resources, experience, and maybe some lobbying capabilities with it? Also, it is generally quite useful to have the support of some interested parties, which could include some restaurants that volunteer to take shark fin off their menu, couples that are getting married that have decided to not serve shark fin at their wedding, or maybe some influential or well-recognized people that would like to help out with your cause! There are advantages and disadvantages to any approach, but in my experience it is important to be organized, well-prepared, confident, and polished. Also, I encourage you to not be disappointed if the process is slow going or does not appear to be an immediate success. These sorts of things take a lot of time to see through to their conclusion.
After our lobbying efforts failed in the city where I live, the local group that I founded decided
to turn its attention to education and awareness rather than legal reform. We have prepared a presentation, presented it at schools in and around our city and at local scuba diving shops, and are currently working to create an education unit for schools that teaches about sharks, ocean conservation, and sustainability. Education is key and making sure that today’s youth know about important issues and the world that they are inheriting is very important. In my experience this may be an even more powerful tool than law reform for this sort of issue. Have you considered establishing an education component to your campaign?
It would be great to see Hong Kong take legal steps to reduce the prevalence of shark fin products, but I think that working to educate people about this important issue is just
as critical and important!
I wish you all the success in creating your campaign and remain willing to help in any way I can!