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Federal rule could upend states’ shark fin bans

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Several members of Congress representing coastal states are voicing concern about a proposed federal regulation that could pre-empt state bans on buying or selling shark fins.

Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of California is being joined by representatives of New York, Florida and Guam in seeking changes to a proposal they say would take away a state tool to protect shark populations.

California, Hawaii, New York and several other states have passed regulations on the sale and trade of shark fins, which are used in a soup considered an Asian delicacy. California’s ban on the sale, trade and possession of shark fins will go into effect Monday after a compromise allowed time for restaurants and businesses to use up their existing supplies.

A letter from the representatives and the delegate from Guam states that a proposed rule by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries management division, the National Marine Fisheries Services, would undermine those laws. California state lawmakers were also circulating an opposition letter.

“If we are to address the problem of shark-finning head on, we must allow state and territorial statutes to complement the federal regulations and further the U.S. leadership in global shark conservation,” states the letter, which has not yet been sent to the fisheries service but was given in advance to The Associated Press.

In addition to Huffman, it is to be signed by Democratic Reps. Sam Farr of California and Grace Meng of New York, Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan and Democratic Delegate Madeleine Bordallo of Guam. Their letter is dated July 8, which is when the public comment period on the proposed rule is scheduled to end.

A request for comment was left with a press officer for the National Marine Fisheries Services.

The proposal under consideration says state and territory shark fin laws are pre-empted if they are found to be inconsistent with federal fishery management plans or regulations.

Conservation and animal welfare groups have begun circulating petitions against the proposal, but representatives of the fishing industry have argued that federal pre-emption is necessary to maintain fishing of commercially viable shark species.

Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 in an effort to strengthen federal laws against shark finning in U.S. waters and require that sharks be landed with their fins still attached. Since then, the fisheries service has been working to craft regulations to implement the act.

Conservation and animal advocacy groups said fishermen have been able to sidestep the rules by taking only the fins of sharks and dumping the carcasses back into the sea. Advocates say tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for the worldwide demand of shark fins and products.

Jill Hepp, director of shark conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said states should have the right to go beyond federal rules in protecting shark populations.

“If this goes forward as they are proposing, this has the potential to undermine the states’ shark fin trade ban and it would be a considerable setback for global shark conservation,” Hepp said.

John Whiteside, an attorney for Sustainable Fisheries Association, a Massachusetts nonprofit founded by four seafood processors, said the federal government should have the final say over regulations, especially fish caught in federal waters.

Not doing so would violate trade laws and run afoul of treaties the federal government has with governments around the world, he said. Commercial fishing groups were successful at getting exemptions in some states for certain species of sharks, such as the dogfish, a small shark also used for fish and chips that is sustainably harvested.

However, California provides no such exemption.

“You’re building a wall around the state of California from which the free flow of legal goods is forbidden,” he said. “If you have these states around the country that build these little islands, you can’t have the free flow of commerce and that’s what this country needs.”

Jennifer Fearing, California director for The Humane Society of the United States, said the state drafted its bill specifically to ban the sale of shark fins, no matter where the shark was caught.

She noted that a federal judge let California’s ban stand earlier this year after the nonprofit Chinatown Neighborhood Association argued in part that state law violated Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce.

“It’s not California sharks being finned,” she said. “It’s dried processed shark fins arriving here already processed and dried. We have no idea where those sharks come from and the only way California can protect sharks globally is if they were not selling.”

California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington have passed laws banning the buying and selling of shark fins, according to the Humane Society. Similar bans are in effect in three U.S. Pacific territories — Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Hawaii state Sen. Clayton Hee, a Democrat who wrote the bill that made the 50th state the first to ban the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins, said Friday that the changes would benefit corporations outside the United States involved in the trade. Hee said he can’t think of another incentive for the rule changes unless the agencies are arguing that there are too many sharks in the ocean.

“It’s baffling to me why a government agency would work to rid the ocean of its health by taking sharks,” Hee said.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the state’s law must be preserved.

“Our law is working as intended,” he said. “We have educated fishers and restaurants, and they are complying.”

Associated Press

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