A Happier Year in Store for America’s Sharks?

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Sharks caught a break yesterday after the Senate passed a piece of important legislation aimed at reducing the number of sharks finned in U.S. waters. The Shark Conservation Act of 2009 passed the Senate on Monday, strengthening existing legislation by closing a few gaping loopholes in the law, and is now due to move to the House.

The bill, introduced by Sen. John Kerry, has been applauded by conservationists who have been pressing for more stringent regulation in a global trade that sees up to 73 million sharks killed each year for their fins.

Kerry, in a press release posted on his web site yesterday, says, “Shark finning has fueled massive population declines and irreversible disruption of our oceans…Finally we’ve come through with a tough approach to tackle this serious threat to our marine life.” (Here’s Kerry’s press release.)

As demand for shark fins, particularly for shark fin soup, has risen in Asia, the hunt for the ancient predators of the sea has become relentless — and unsustainable. Sharks are slow to mature and don’t reproduce in great numbers. As their fins have become increasingly valuable, some 30% of the world’s shark species are now threatened or near threatened with extinction, according to the Pew Environmental Group. Off the west coast of the U.S., some species have declined by up to 80% since the 1970s.

(Read more about shark finning and shark fin soup.)

Though finning – the practice of catching a live shark, cutting its fins off, and dumping the rest of the body overboard – has been illegal in the U.S. since the Shark Finning Prohibition Act was passed in 2000, gaps in the law have allowed the practice to continue. The new act eliminates the major loophole of the Act by prohibiting any boat to carry shark fins without the corresponding number and weight of carcasses, and further specifies that all sharks are landed, or brought to port, with their fins attached.

Matt Rand, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign, issued the following statement of approval in response to the Senate action on Monday:

As our marine environment becomes more and more threatened, we need further safeguards to keep ecosystems and top predator populations healthy. Domestic protections alone will not save sharks. The U.S. should use this act to bolster its position when negotiating for increased international protections.

The House has already passed an earlier version of the 2009 Act, and will now prepare to vote again on the revised law.

(See the top 10 animal stories of 2010.)