Monday, February 02, 2015

Saipan Sharks Remain Protected

Four years ago the global conservation spotlight shone brightly on the Northern Mariana Islands as we became the first US territory to criminalize the sale, trade, and possession of shark fin (sharks had actually been protected back in 2008, but it wasn't a criminal offense). Our law was based on a similar law from Hawaii and helped kick off a tsunami of shark conservation in 2011, a year that would see shark protections enacted in Guam, The Bahamas, Honduras, Marshall Islands, and several U.S. states including Washington, Oregon, and California.

Many of my friends were involved in the passage of the CNMI law, including the unstoppable force of nature Cinta, my buddy Brad and his better third Kathy, Laurie, Harry, Thelma, and many others. The sponsors of the bill were former lt. governor turned lawmaker Diego Benavente and future lt. governor, lawmaker Jude Hofschneider. Outside supporters included Rob Stewart, Shawn Heinrichs, Stefanie Brendl, WildAid, Shark Savers, Humane Society International, and of course, the organization that employs me. It was a proud moment for all of us, and has been the foundation of my shark advocacy around the world these last few years.

At the time, the only opposition came from federal officials in Hawaii. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council flew to Saipan and lobbied against the law in the days before its passage. Liz Wahl, who has since become a very vocal, highly visible critic of Putin, was the news anchor for KSPN 2 on the day the law passed.

It's interesting that Kitty Simmonds would say, "they're not threatened, they're not endangered," and that "there are stock assessments for these sharks." Neither statement is true. Anyway, in the end, WESPAC lost. The law passed and the world celebrated.

All seemed fine for two years, until one day in 2013 the federal government published a proposed rule in the federal register for another law that manages how sharks are killed in US fisheries. The proposed rule, as written, would overturn Saipan's law -- and all of the other shark fin trade bans since. The federal government argued that closing down the trade in shark fins conflicted with the goals of setting optimum yield for all US fisheries.

This plan did not sit well with many people. That is certainly one way to interpret the goals of the federal law that manages fisheries, but it is not the only one. The outcry was so immense that more than 180,000 people submitted comments on the rule. US senators and representatives, governors, state senators and representatives, conservationists, dive businesses, shark attack survivors, students, and even Sherman the Shark decried the effect it would have on the state laws.

WESPAC responded by proposing a shark cull in the Marianas. I swear I am not making this up.

The federal government took note and announced they would look into the laws one at a time and work with the state governments to come to a compromise. Over the course of 2014, all of the mainland states that passed shark fin trade bans were exempted from this federal preemption. They exempted Saipan late in December, but did not post the announcement on their website until January 2015.

I spoke with KSPN 2 about what this decision meant for sharks and the Commonwealth. I am very, very happy about this decision. There was a bit of compromise on both sides, and they made the right choice.

Now we wait for the decisions on Guam and Hawaii (and possibly American Samoa). Guam should be fine as the fisheries and laws there and on Saipan are almost identical. I suspect they will be exempted. The big question mark is Hawaii. As my investigation last year shows, sharks are still being landed there, although the trade in their fins is banned. I'm hopeful they will be able to come to agreement and land at a compromise that is fair to the many Hawaiian citizens who want to see their sharks protected.

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