News Column

Documentary film shines light on shark finning

June 8, 2014

By Nina Wu, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

June 08--Kauai surf photographer Mike Coots survived a shark bite while bodyboarding 17 years ago but now advocates for sharks' survival.

Coots, 34, is a volunteer ambassador for the Pew Charitable Trusts' environmental group, raising awareness about shark finning in honor of World Oceans Day, which is being observed Sunday.

His message is particularly urgent because a federal rule threatens to supersede Hawaii's stringent laws against the sale or possession of shark fin products in the state.

"It's a barbaric practice," he said of shark finning. "It's cruel to the animals. They take their fins, and the rest of the flesh of the animal is discarded in the ocean ... and it's done at a number that's not sustainable."

Though he lost the lower part of his right leg, Coots returned to the waves within about a month, as soon as the stitches came out.

He said he has no fear of sharks and harbors no anger toward them.

As part of its World Oceans Day Hawai'i celebration, the HonoluluMuseum of Art will present the Hawaii premiere of the hourlong documentary "Extinction Soup," by Philip Waller, at 6 p.m. Sunday at Doris Duke Theatre, followed by a panel discussion.

Hawaii was the first of eight states to implement a ban on shark finning and has the strictest version of the law on the books. The law, authored by state Sen. Clayton Hee, was passed in 2010 with the help of Coots and went into effect in July 2011.

It bans the sale, trade and distribution of shark fins and all shark fin products (whether raw, canned, dried or in a soup) in Hawaii, and comes with a fine of up to $15,000 for the first offense and up to $35,000 for the second.

"Once Hawaii passed its law, other states followed," said Hee, who is featured in the documentary. "It has become the international model for shark-finning laws."

In the film he says shark finning is no different from killing an elephant for its tusks or removing the horn from a rhinoceros.

"From my point of view, we're not saving the shark, we're saving the ocean," Hee says in the film. "When you're saving the ocean, you're saving mankind."

Hee will be part of the post-film panel along with executive producer Stefanie Brendl and Inga Gibson of the Humane Society of the United States.

Shark-finning bans are also in place in California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Delaware, New York and Maryland, as well as Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

All four of the Federated States of Micronesia (Kosrae, Yap, Pohnpei and Chuuk) have enacted shark protections in their waters.

If the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has its way, however, Hawaii's laws could be usurped by federal law, watering it down, according to Angelo Villagomez, manager of Pew's global shark conservation campaign.

The federal Shark Conservation Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, bans the practice of shark finning, where fishermen slice off the fin at sea, throwing the animal back into the water. But the law allows them to bring the whole shark to Hawaii, then remove the fin on land and ship it to other markets.

In May 2013, NOAA proposed a new rule to implement fishery management plans consistent with the act, saying it would need to pre-empt state laws that created a problem for fishermen who lawfully catch sharks in federal waters. NOAA says it has so far found no conflict with the shark-finning laws in effect in California, Delaware, Maryland, Oregon and Washington.

Up to 73 million sharks are killed every year to support the global shark fin industry, according to Pew, with the fins fetching up to $300 per pound. Because they grow slowly and produce few young, many shark species that play an important role as key predators in the ocean ecosystem are headed for extinction.

The largest markets for shark fin consumption are in Asia, with Hong Kong accounting for more than half of the trade to China and Vietnam.

The federal government should not diminish Hawaii conservation efforts, said Hee, who prefers the state's current strict laws remain in place to protect sharks, considered by many Native Hawaiians to be aumakua, guardians of family ancestors.

"Anyone who has a love of the ocean knows that everything is interconnected in our seas," said Coots. "If you lose something at the very top, everything below it will tumble."


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Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)

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