by Jessica Wilde, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - In the United States, it is illegal to remove a shark’s fin and discard the rest of the fish to die in the water, a practice that has been driven by high demand for shark fin soup and has depleted shark populations worldwide.
But several states have gone further to curb demand for the fins by making it illegal to possess or sell detached shark fins, and Maryland could be next.
A bill in both the House and Senate would make it illegal, with some exceptions, to distribute, possess, sell or trade shark fins in the state, effectively making it illegal to sell shark fin soup in Maryland.
There are about 15 watermen who fish for sharks in Maryland waters, and about 10 restaurants that serve shark fin soup, according to a fiscal note accompanying the bill. The watermen would still be allowed to fish for sharks, commonly used for meat, but they wouldn’t be allowed to sell the more valuable detached fins.
One of the Maryland restaurants that serve shark fin soup is Wong Gee Asian Restaurant on University Boulevard in Wheaton.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland opposes the legislation because of the precedent it sets, said Melvin Thompson, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs and public policy, in testimony to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Tuesday.
“This sets a bad precedent for restaurants by legislating what restaurants may and may not serve based on perceived food ethics,” Thompson said. “We believe that a foray in this area in public policy could pave the way for bans on other products.”
But Tami Santelli, Maryland state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said it is important to cut off the market for shark fins so there is less incentive to kill them for fins. Santelli is working with Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, who sponsored the Senate bill.
Frosh and others who support the bill want to make sure that Maryland does not contribute to the ongoing problem that harvesting shark fins has on shark populations.
“Anti-finning laws are not enough,” Frosh said.
He compared the practice to cutting the tusks of elephants to sell the ivory, and said Maryland has to limit both the supply and the demand.
John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium Institute, agreed.
Sharks are neither cuddly nor warm to most people, Racanelli said, but as apex predators, they play an important role in maintaining the balance in a healthy ocean.
John Martin of Martin Fishing Company agreed with the benefits of promoting sustainable fisheries. That is in his best interest, too, he said.
But he and the fishermen he represents don’t want to waste parts of animals that they are already catching.
“We’re the last ones that want to waste animals of any species,” Martin said. “We want to sustain it.”
If a fish is allowed to be caught, use 100 percent of that fish, he said.
He also raised the question of what will happen to the discarded fins. Will they end up in the trash, and now the trash pick-up is in possession of a shark fin, he said.
A proposed amendment would make an exception for the spiny dogfish shark, the largest shark harvest in Maryland, in order to lower the impact on commercial fishermen.
“It would allow the sale of dogfish fins,” Santelli said.
Advocates in support of the bill were apprehensive about the amendment, but supported it if it meant the bill would pass.