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Texas Bans Shark Fin Trade: A Red State's Stand for Endangered Species

Social movements can last for decades, even centuries. Rather than worrying about whether you will be able to finish the race, what if you decided to start it?
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Last month, Governor Greg Abbott signed H.B. 1579 into law, making Texas the 10th state, and the first red state, to prohibit the sale, trade, purchase and transportation of shark fins. The law that grew out of a bill introduced by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-District 38, ensures that Texas no longer participates in the trade that is driving the global decline of shark species.

"Shark finning is not only an inhumane and illegal act, but it also puts the sustainability of our marine ecosystem at stake," said Rep. Lucio. "This law will prevent profiting from this heinous practice, and I want to thank to members of the legislature and Governor Abbott for understanding the critical role that sharks place in our ecosystem."

The Humane Society of the United States and Oceana spearheaded the legislative push, but this groundbreaking initiative to save sharks in Texas actually began with a children's book. In 2011, I read that 100 million sharks are killed each year by humans, while human deaths by sharks averaged less than ten people annually worldwide. This upset my kids, then ages 4 and 6, so we did some research and were horrified by the slaughter of 2,000 hammerhead, Galapagos and whale sharks off the coast of Colombia.

If a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic, then it is no wonder that staggering marine losses can paralyze people, especially in land-locked Dallas. But the barbarism of the story spurred us into action and led us to launch the Texas campaign.

We began by seeking ways to tell the story of sharks to a Texas audience. As a Gulf state, Texas benefits from healthy waters. Losing an apex predator like the shark drastically affects the balance of the oceanic food chain and by extension, the health and economic vitality of our Gulf waters. Moreover, with 2 billion of the world's population depending on the ocean as a sole source of protein, shark extinction not only represents a devastating loss to biodiversity, but also a threat to humanity.

To jumpstart the movement, we recruited marine biologist David McGuire, the San Francisco-based executive director of non-profit Shark Stewards who participated in a coalition that successfully pushed through a ban in California. From there, David enlisted the help of the Humane Society of the United States, whose Texas State Director Katie Jarl became the animating force behind the campaign.

Partnering with Katie and David, I ran Shark Stewards' grassroots campaign from my home in East Dallas. Road tripping to Austin with our "fintern," high-school senior student Kayla Ellis who is now majoring in marine biology, to testify before the House sub-committee was one of many highlights. Others included writing op-eds for national and international news outlets, tabling at Whole Foods, lobbying our state legislators, and learning from luminaries like Washington Post reporter and Demon Fish author Juliet Eilperin, world-renowned ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, and ocean advocate and explorer Philippe Cousteau, Jr.

But despite our efforts and our success in getting through the House, we lost after the fishermen's lobbyist moved in and our co-sponsor dropped us. Later, they told me that first campaigns often fail. I'm glad that I didn't know this, or else I may never have tried.

Fortunately, the Humane Society and Oceana were able to pick up where we left off for the 2015 legislative session, during which Katie traveled to 25 cities to garner support for the bill. We stayed informed through friends we made from the diving, conservation, zoo and aquarium communities. And after teaching others about the importance of calling their representatives, I did the same whenever I received an announcement about it.

Although my role in the second campaign was much smaller, I still reveled in the win with my activist friends in a virtual Facebook party when my "crazy" idea became a law.

I'm proud of Texas for crossing the political hurdles in order to do what is right, and that my children have proof in perpetuity that they have a voice in the democratic process. But state bans are still a drop in the ocean in terms of stopping global fin trade. A recent news story reports that police in Ecuador seized 200,000 shark fins to be illegally exported to Asia, where they would fetch about $1.5 million. It's a sobering reminder that our work is not finished.

This week, the Discovery channel celebrates the 28th anniversary of Shark Week. Consumers of television who tune in will be entertained and intrigued by these charismatic creatures of the sea. But it will take more than a few to get off the couch and into action in order to save a disappearing species.

Supporting state bans on the shark fin trade is an important place to start. Since the passage of shark fin bans, an Oceana analysis of NOAA data states that the U.S. trade in shark fins has declined by 83 percent in just one year. According to marine biologist David McGuire, whose organization Shark Stewards is focused on building coalitions and capacity for shark fin trade bans and restrictions on the trade of unregulated shark fins to Asia:

Without strict control of the shark fin trade, we must ensure shark fins imported and re-exported through the U.S. market do not come from finned sharks or endangered species. That's why it is critical to continue with state regulations closing markets to shark fins here and in Asia. Another major argument to reduce trade and consumption in Western society is that when we go to China, where the majority of shark fins are consumed, we can truthfully argue that Chinese Americans do not support eating shark fin, because wasting sharks and destroying the ocean is not part of their culture.

From overfishing and plastic pollution to climate change, myriad human-induced problems are fueling the Sixth Great Extinction. If the essence of sustainability is that we are all connected, then we are not only connected to the problems but also to the solutions. But first we have to connect with each other.

Social movements can last for decades, even centuries. Rather than worrying about whether you will be able to finish the race, what if you decided to start it? By taking a single step and then connecting other entities to your mission, you can catalyze a contagion of change that extends beyond the boundaries of your backyard, the borders of your experience, and the horizons of your imagination.

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