On Monday, Republican senators Troy Fraser and Larry Taylor blocked a bill — one that seemed to be a shoo-in — that would have banned the cruel practice of "shark finning." Shark finning is a practice where fishermen slice the fins off live sharks, then throw them back into the ocean, still alive. They can't survive without their fins, so they're left to flail and die.
Shark fins are used for one thing: Chinese "shark fin soup."
The bill – House Bill 852 – had already been approved by the Texas House. It had support from a coalition of 45 organizations, including zoos, aquariums, conservation associations, religious groups, environmental groups and animal welfare groups, says Katie Jarl, director of the Texas branch of the Humane Society of the United States.
"With a bill that had such strong support from so many organizations — tourism groups, marine biology institutes, the CEO of The Container Store — their opposition just didn't make sense," she says.
The practice is already outlawed in seven states — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon and Washington — and New York has a bill pending. The practice is also illegal in the United States; federal law requires that sharks caught must have fins still attached.
Fraser is from District 24, which includes towns such as Abilene, Fredericksburg, Killeen and Temple. Taylor, whose flip-flop is especially curious because he was originally a sponsor of the bill, covers District 11, a small geographical area that includes Galveston County.
Fraser said the bill would limit fishermen in Texas. But neither he nor Taylor represents a significant constituency of fishermen — or Chinese restaurants, for that matter.
"We were confident that, given the overwhelming support this bill had, that senators who might usually be against this kind of thing would recognize that support and put aside any personal feelings in favor of what is supported by their constituency," Jarl says. "And we added a number of amendments to address every concern.
"For example, Texas Parks and Wildlife requested an amendment that would help sport fishermen who could cut off the head off a shark while in the water so they could begin bleeding," Jarl says. "Every amendment suggested was gladly made — except for one allowing for the sale of shark fin soup. But, at the end of day, that's what they hung their hat on. On the Senate floor, Fraser started talking about shark fin soup, an issue that had never come up before."
Something smells fishy
Fraser's concern over shark fin soup seemed unexpected. "It's hard to tell where his defense of shark fin soup is coming from, because no one Fraser represents in Abilene, Temple, Frederickburg or Marble Falls is selling shark fin soup," Jarl says. In Texas, 13 Chinese restaurants still serve it, the majority in Houston.
Fraser is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, involved in clearing the bill before it went to the Senate. While the bill was in that committee, a charter fisherman named Scott Hickman raised an objection.
"When the bill was in the Natural Resources Committee, the only opposition came from one charter fisherman, who said he was afraid he wouldn't be able to sell his shark catches," Jarl says. "So we added an additional amendment that you may sell shark with the fin attached. It was clear on the bill that he could sell the entire shark."
That wasn't enough reassurance for Fraser and Taylor. Calls made to their offices regarding their change of heart were not returned.
Fraser's office was especially slippery. An assistant directed inquiries to the Natural Resources Committee; "they're the ones you need to talk to," she said. An unnamed member of that committee said the cause of Fraser's backflip was objections from charter fishermen, before bouncing the call back to Fraser's chief of staff, Janice McCoy. Her office said she was in a meeting and too busy to take the call.
Sharks produce very few offspring, and they're considered a vital part of marine life. The fins have no nutritional value and contain high levels of mercury. We're killing 100 million every year, and unless we stop, we're going to wipe them out completely.
It's either no shark fin soup now or no shark fin soup later. But, at some point, regardless of how we get there, it's no shark fin soup.