A California congressman wants the rest of the nation to follow the Golden State's lead and eliminate the shark fin trade for good. Shark fin soup has long been savored in some Chinese-American communities as a high-priced, special-occasion dish. Experts say a vast majority of fins found in the United States come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In 2013 the state banned the possession and sale of shark fins, and last year a challenge to the law was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act by U.S. Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton would extend a similar prohibition to all 50 states. In the upper house, Sen. Cory Booker's Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act would prohibit the import, export, sale and trade of shark fins. The fishing industry is fighting the legislation, while animal rights advocates say the practice of finning, in which sharks are often maimed and left for dead, needs to stop.

Shark finning is illegal in domestic waters, but sharks are sometimes caught outside the United States and their fins imported. Advocates for the business argue that federal regulations already require all domestic fishing to be ecologically sustainable and that so few sharks fins traded in the United States — the Sustainable Shark Alliance says the country is responsible for about 3 percent of global shark fin trade — that the law is unnecessary.

“We believe in sustainable harvesting [of] every aquatic species and using the whole animal whenever possible,” says Robert Vannase, executive director of Saving Seafood, a public outreach group funded by the commercial fishing industry. “There is demand for shark fins, and we think it makes much more sense for that demand to be fulfilled by well-regulated, sustainable fishing rather than to have the U.S. check out of the market entirely.”

Industry advocates emphasize that when sharks are caught or imported, the whole fish is used. Banning shark fins would contradict this ethos of sustainable fishing, they say. “Why would you throw them in the trash,” says Greg DiDomenico, executive director of New Jersey's Garden State Seafood Association and a vocal critic of the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act. He adds that such a ban could put some small-scale fishing concerns out of business. “This is a razor-thin margin business,” DiDomenico says. “It will remove another choice for American working fishermen.”

“It's punishing people who are playing by the rules,” adds Shaun Gehan, an attorney for the pro-fishing-industry Sustainable Shark Alliance.

In 2011 the anti-ban contingent found an ally in then-state Sen. Ted Lieu, who essentially raised the argument that one culture's meat shouldn't be favored over another's. “There's nothing inherently wrong about drinking shark fin soup,” the U.S. representative, who's Chinese-American, said at the time.

Critics of the shark fin trade dispute the industry's argument that it's part of sustainable fishing. They've long held that sharks caught outside the United States are finned and then left to sink to their deaths. “The United States can set an example for the rest of the world by shutting down its market for shark fins, which are often harvested by leaving these animals to die a slow and painful death at the bottom of the ocean,” Royce said in a statement. “While California led the way with a state-wide ban, there are still almost 40 states where the purchase of shark fins is legal.”

The environmental group Oceana, a supporter of the federal legislation, estimates that 73 million sharks are subject to the global fin trade. “Americans don’t want shark fins in the U.S.,” Lora Snyder, the nonprofit's campaign director, said in a statement. Last year actor Morgan Freeman joined the group in supporting a coast-to-coast ban. He gave this statement:

“Sharks are being killed for their fins, much like rhinos and elephants have been decimated due to the demand for their horns and tusks. While shark finning is banned in U.S. waters, we continue to buy, sell and trade shark fins throughout the country. By allowing the trade of shark fins within our borders, the U.S. continues to contribute to this global problem. The Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act would not only get the U.S. out of the shark fin trade business, but it would also reinforce the status of the United States as a leader in shark conservation.”

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