SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Discovery Channel kicked off its 31st annual Shark Week on Sunday, sparking conversation about sharks across the country. Activists and lawmakers, however, have had their eyes on sharks right here in Georgia long before this week.
For years, the port of Savannah has been the leader in the export of shark fins to other countries. These exports are legal, but controversial due to the practice of shark finning.
Shark finning is the practice of cutting off a shark’s fins and throwing the body back into the ocean. It is seen as inhumane by many animal rights groups because the sharks are sometimes alive when the finning happens and bleed out or suffocate when thrown back in the water.
According to AWI, around 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins alone, contributing to their declining population. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified all but one warm-water flat shark as critically endangered in July. Shark finning in U.S. waters is illegal, but the possession, sale, trade and distribution of shark fins is only banned in certain states.
The State of Georgia does not currently have any law against the possession, sale, trade or distribution of shark fins.
“Savannah is the number one exporter of shark fins in the United States,” Cathy Liss, president of AWI, said. “Georgia plays an unfortunate role in the lucrative, billion-dollar shark fin trade. As long as we continue to provide a marketplace for shark fin products, the United States, including Georgia, will undoubtedly contribute to the destruction of shark populations.”
The United States isn’t just exporting shark fins. According to an online database maintained by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), nearly 200 restaurants across the country, at least nine in Georgia, are serving shark fin products, such as shark fin soup, an expensive, traditional East Asian dish.
As mentioned above, shark finning in U.S. waters is illegal thanks to the 2000 Shark Finning Prohibition Act, followed by the Shark Conservation Act of 2010. The Shark Conservation Act of 2010 requires that all commercially fished sharks in the U.S., with one exception, be brought to shore with fins naturally attached.
Activists are now urging lawmakers to pass a federal ban of shark fin exports and imports as well. They hope that the ban of shark fins all together in the United States will have a negative effect on the shark fin market, decreasing the amount of shark finning happening worldwide.
Some Georgia representatives have already signed on to the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019, which would make it illegal “to possess, buy or sell shark fins or any product containing shark fins.” The legislation has been introduced to the House, but has not passed yet.
Some groups, such as the Sustainable Shark Alliance, oppose the bill, arguing that an all out ban on shark fin sales will be less effective for global shark conservation efforts than legal, regulated fishing. In March, the organization said in a testimony that a better solution would be to “incentivize foreign fishermen to adopt meaningful conservation measures”.
Georgia Representatives Sanford Bishop, Hank Johnson, David Scott and Rob Woodall have all shown their support of the legislation. Senator David Purdue and Senator Johnny Isakson have not yet signed on to the bill.