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Predators, Prey, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

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If you’re one of the 29 million Americans that can’t wait to tune in to this week’s Shark Week spectacular, you’re probably familiar with the incredible power, grace, and agility of the world’s 460-plus species of sharks.

For the past 27 years, audiences have been captivated by the annual week-long tribute to the world’s majestic aquatic predators. But what you might not realize is that sharks are in serious danger.

In fact, tens of millions of sharks are mercilessly killed each year. More than 160 species of sharks are categorized as at risk of extinction, ranging from near threatened to critically endangered. But what’s the biggest threat to these crucial and magnificent creatures? Shark finning.

Shark finning is the increasingly rampant and highly profitable process of stripping sharks of their fins and throwing the sharks back into the ocean, very much alive but unable to swim. This leaves the helpless sharks at risk of bleeding to death or becoming prey for another predator. Shark fins -- the most profitable part of a shark -- are then traded in a billion-dollar annual market.  For centuries, shark fins have been mainly used in the wildly expensive shark fin soup, a delicacy in some countries.

Importantly, some countries are beginning to take action to stop shark finning. The U.S., for example, has already banned shark finning, and eight U.S. states and three U.S. territories have passed bans outlawing the possession, sale, trade, and consumption of shark fins. And, thanks to the recent campaign by former basketball star Yao Ming, shark fin soup has been on the decline in China. In fact, shark fin trading has dropped by as much as 82 percent in some parts of the country and continues to decline.

While this is a step in the right direction to protect sharks, it’s not enough. We need strong action and common-sense policies to stop shark finning and associated trade around the world. Unfortunately, a massive trade agreement currently under negotiation between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries seems to leave shark fins on the chopping block.  

Lemon SharksIn fact, many of the 12 Pacific Rim countries negotiating the secretive trade pact -- Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore, to name a few -- have a long and bloody history in the shark fin trade. That’s why it is particularly worrying that a previously leaked chapter of the TPP includes only very vague references to shark finning -- not the full ban on shark finning and associated trade that we need. Other parts of the TPP would allow corporations to sue governments over environmental safeguards—like protections for sharks—that might decrease their profits. This could mean a huge step backward in the fight to protect sharks.

Luckily, there’s a way to protect the sharks -- and you can help. Some Members of Congress want to “fast track” the TPP by simply voting yes or no to pass the deal -- without taking the time to debate or amend it. We must tell our Members of Congress to oppose fast track in order to prevent a harmful TPP that threatens communities, our environment, and sharks. So while you’re watching prime time shark action this week, take action to tell your Member of Congress that the U.S. can’t be a part of any trade deal that puts our sharks at risk.

We know we need to protect our oceans’ top predator. It’s time the U.S. led the way.

--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program