Texans Try to Take a Bite Out of Shark Fin Trade

This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

Shark finning has been getting a lot of press lately, even landing on Richard Branson's blog -- and deservedly so. The cruel yet lucrative practice is decimating approximately 100 million sharks each year, according to a new scientific report. To help close the market, five states have now passed bans to prohibit the shark fin trade, and Texas may become the sixth. If the legislation passes, Texas would become the first red state to lead in this issue.

Emmy-award winning actor Kyle Chandler (who played the beloved Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights) is lending some celebrity support to the effort. He and his eleven-year-old Sawyer Chandler, who launched a website and petition to raise awareness about shark finning, will join advocates in Austin next week to lobby in support of H.B.852/S.B 572, a bill prohibiting the sale, trade, purchase and transportation of shark fins in Texas.

In Sawyer's words, "You may think sharks are mean killing machines, but really, it is all a big lie! Sharks are loving animals and people really do underestimate them. In about 100 years or maybe even less, sharks could be endangered or even extinct."

Unbeknownst to Sawyer, eight-year-old Jordan Clark has been spearheading her own campaign in Dallas, dedicating her 7th and 8th birthday parties to raise funds for Shark Stewards, a San Francisco-based nonprofit initiative to protect sharks. As the Texas chair of Shark Stewards, and as her mother, I could not be prouder of Jordan.

Jordan and Sawyer will meet for the first time during Humane Lobby Day, hosted by the Humane Society of the United States, on March 14. They will ask legislators to support the bi-partisan bill sponsored by Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-District 38) and Sen. Larry Taylor (R-District 11). Similar legislation has been enacted in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon and Washington as well as in the U.S. Pacific territories of Guam, American Samoa and the Marianna Islands.

Shark finning, which is banned in the waters off of the United States but remains unregulated in many parts of the world, is driven by demand for shark-fin soup, a delicacy symbolizing wealth and status. The soup sells for as much as $100 per bowl in China and is readily available in many restaurants in Texas.

As I explained in my op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor, Jordan and I first became concerned about this issue when I came across brutal reports of thousands of lifeless, finless sharks found on the ocean floor off the Colombian coast. What, we wondered, could we in Texas do about this problem?

As it turns out, passing this legislation would be more than a symbolic gesture for Texas. We are a coastal state, and our sharks are important to fisheries and Gulf ecosystems, as well as divers who enjoy Flower Garden Banks, a National Marine Sanctuary located in the Gulf of Mexico. Driven by the high demand for shark fin, an illegal shark fishing industry flourishes in Texas waters. Texas Fish and Wildlife officials believe that these fins are entering the marketplace to supply restaurants whose patrons crave the luxury dish.

According to David McGuire, marine biologist and director of Shark Stewards, the current rate of fishing sharks far exceeds the rate at which the populations can sustain themselves. McGuire says:

"After more than 400 million years on planet Earth and surviving the great extinction events including that of the dinosaurs, one third of open ocean shark species are now threatened with extinction. Because sharks mature late and produce few young, they cannot possibly reproduce at the same rate at which we are killing them. As apex predators, at the top of the marine food chain, sharks are critical to maintaining the health and the balance of the Gulf and of our oceans."

As Jordan's mom, I am inspired by the belief I see in my daughter's eyes that she can do something about a problem that so many find too remote or scary to touch. The inhumane practice of shark finning has implications well beyond animal welfare; the decline of sharks also poses a severe ecological and economic threat to the tens of millions of people around the world who rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. That Jordan understands makes her act to conserve also an act of service.

I've watched Jordan for the past year-and-a-half as she and her mentor, high school senior and aspiring marine biologist Kayla Ellis, have boldly addressed audiences at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Whole Foods, and her school to educate others about this issue. They were my inspiration as I testified before the Texas State Senate committee last week in support of H.B.852/S.B 572.

With so much negative emphasis over the state of young people and the media today, I am deeply encouraged to see these girls using the power of technology to communicate for a higher purpose. I have them to thank for the reminder that every citizen has a voice, if we just choose to use it.

This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.