- 5 Min Read
- 5 Mar 2019
Hawaii Could Soon Ban Killing Sharks in Pioneering Law
Sharks could soon become more numerous in Hawaii waters – and advocates say that’s a good thing.
Lawmakers in Honolulu advanced a proposed ban on killing sharks in state waters on Wednesday, after receiving hundreds of calls and letters of support from around the country. The law, which would provide sweeping protection for any shark, rather than select species, could be the first of its kind in the United States.
“These amazing animals are getting wiped out before our eyes, and people don’t even realize what they’re missing out on,” said Ocean Ramsey, a Hawaii-based shark conservationist, researcher and tour operator who has been instrumental in lobbying for the bill, in an interview with the Guardian. Last month, a photo of Ramsey swimming with a 6-metre (20ft) great white shark off the coast of Oahu went viral.
Along with killing the animals, capturing or harming them would also incur fines and count as a misdemeanor offense.
Sharks, Ramsey said, are deeply misunderstood. Their presence in the ocean is unlike any other animal’s, she noted. “Everything else in the ocean swims away from you, but you can have these incredible interactions with sharks because they’re apex predators and they’re not afraid of you.”
The threats to Hawaii’s sharks are numerous, proponents of the bill argue.
Shark meat isn’t a popular food source, but Ramsey said she has seen sharks left to die on shore, and has encountered images of local fishermen using sharks as bait to catch giant kingfish.
In addition, shark fins can sometimes sell for as much as $500 a pound. Shark fin soup, a delicacy once favored by Chinese emperors, has become widely popular as a status symbol in modern China. As a result, nearly 100 million sharks are killed globally each year, and species are disappearing. A combination of state and federal laws prohibit the possession of shark fins, as well as “finning”, the brutal fishing technique where sharks are caught, have their fin cut off and are thrown back in the water to die, but the practice continues.
In November, a dozen men who had worked onboard a Japanese fishing vessel were arrested by federal agents as they tried to board a flight bound for Indonesia. Inside their bags was 190lb of shark fins, worth $57,850 on the black market, according to Hawaii’s US attorney’s office. Some of the fins were from internationally protected species of sharks, such as the oceanic whitetip, which has declined by 80-95% across the Pacific Ocean since the 1990s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sharks have also been the target of tour operators’ nighttime “big game” shark-fishing excursions off Waikiki beach on Oahu and other islands.
Critics of the bill argue that sharks already have enough protections in Hawaii. Dr Kim Holland, a research professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute of Marine Biology, argued that Hawaii’s shark population has been stable for years. “I think if you wanted to be born a shark on the planet, this is where you’d choose,” he said. “I’m sure this law is well-intentioned, but I’m not sure what the motivation for it is.”
Sharks are crucial to Hawaii’s marine ecosystem, and oceans worldwide. “They’re the ocean’s immune system,” Ramsey said. Multiple studies have linked shark populations to overall ocean health. They serve a critical purpose by picking off sick and injured marine animals and keeping smaller fish populations under control.
When the shark population declines, large predatory fish can overproduce and decimate the populations of small plant-eating fish, which are crucial to keeping algae down and supporting reef systems. In some places, shark loss has wreaked havoc on local economies, too. In North Carolina’s offshore waters, the overfishing of sharks led to an increased number of rays that consumed the area’s prized bay scallops and forced fisheries to close.
Although sharks are often feared and vilified in films, attacks are relatively uncommon in Hawaii, state data shows. Hawaii has 1.4 million residents and more than 9 million annual visitors. In 2018, there were three shark attacks across the islands, two of which were relatively minor, but one in which the victim lost their right leg below the knee.
Aside from protecting sharks, the proposed law also expands protections for rays which, like sharks, are slow-growing, long-living animals that begin reproducing at a relatively mature age, and have fewer offspring than other ocean creatures.
Ramsey said she hopes the law will be passed in Hawaii and inspire similar laws in other states, and, ultimately, around the globe.
“These animals have been around for 450m years, and during my lifetime so many of them will go extinct,” she said. “I want it to stop. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to future generations.”