Today is Endangered Species Day, and animal advocates around the nation are ratcheting up the fight to save their favorite species. Here in Texas, the battle is on to save the shark. According to the latest research, 100 million sharks are disappearing from our oceans each year, primarily driven by the lucrative trade in shark fins, the main ingredient in shark fin soup. Once a dish for emperors, shark fin soup is now served at banquets and in restaurants to satisfy the appetites of Asia’s upwardly mobile society.
The Chinese consumers who are bent on showing off their new money through the consumption of this tasteless delicacy may not fully comprehend the consequences. As apex predators, sharks are the regulators of the sea. Their presence is critical for maintaining a balanced ecology on which fisherman and tourists rely, as well as the two billion of the world’s poor who depend on the ocean for their main source of protein.
To counter this devastating trend that is driving some shark species toward extinction, states are passing legislation to ban the sale and consumption of shark fins. Already Hawaii, Washington, California, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have passed laws. Three other bills from East Coast states now await their governors’ signatures to become laws. State by state, Americans are working diligently to close down the market for shark fins. Texans have a historic opportunity to join them.
Today Texans are calling on their state senators to support HB 852, a bill that would prohibit the sale and consumption of shark fins in Texas. Due to the nature of this legislation, which is essentially about the sustainability of our oceans, this bill runs the risk of falling into a political crevasse. Some conservative legislators do not recognize the ecological and economic benefits of live sharks at sea so much as the political advantages of protecting the individual rights of a few to profit from a destructive practice. What they fail to recognize is that conservation is conservative, and all Texans have an interest in seeing sharks flourish, especially in Gulf waters. That is why we we’ve earned not only the support of groups like the Sierra Club, but also faith-based groups such as the Dallas Interfaith Power & Light.
Since launching a campaign with Shark Stewards and The Humane Society of the United States, I’ve been writing op-eds on shark conservation for the past year. I’ve seen some battles along the way, but none like during the past 2 days. All seemed lost when we got word that HB 852, our “shark bill,” was trapped in the Senate Natural Resources committee. A handful of people had all the power over whether it lived or died. As of 5:00 PM on Tuesday, things felt hopeless due to opposition from top ranking committee members. Without the vote of at least six members of the committee and the consent of the chairman (a vocal opponent of our bill due to dissent from several charter fishermen), it would not make it out of the committee alive.
After our bill passed through the House with a 2/3 majority, to watch a small group of politicians prevent it from proceeding to the Senate floor for a statewide vote would have been a painful loss. So what did we do? Our coalition shifted into serious collaboration mode. Grassroots volunteers from around the state rallied to make calls to the Natural Resources committee members. From Texas’ most seasoned and influential sustainability advocates to family members, we mobilized citizens at all stages of political involvement to help save the sharks.
Such outreach efforts have been going on for months. On March 5, a group of advocates convened in Austin to testify before the Senate committee. Later that month week, more of us convened in Austin for the House committee hearing. We had 26 individuals take time out of their day to come to the Capitol to demonstrate their support and in some cases testify on behalf of our bill. (The attached picture includes some of us standing with our bill's sponsor, Representative Eddie Lucio III.)
Young Texans have championed this bill as well, from my own children and niece and nephew to Sawyer Chandler, the 11-year old daughter of actor Kyle Chandler. Texas Director of the Humane Society Katie Jarl, who has tirelessly worked in Austin on a daily basis on behalf of this bill, assures me that our grassroots support is what has kept her going.
This week, our coalition’s efforts culminated in an outpouring of organizational support from some of our state’s leading institutions. Animal Husbandry Manager Greg Whittaker of Moody Gardens worked with Shark Stewards Executive Director David McGuire to draft an organizational letter that garnered support from more than 30 organizations within 24 hours. Such collaboration is essential for conservation. Given the powerful economic interests involved in the animal trade, no single entity or NGO can fight the battle alone. But together, these represent the collective voice of thousands of Texans:
The Humane Society of the United States
Trinity River Audubon Center
Black Beauty Ranch
Defenders of Wildlife
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Texas A&M University Galveston
Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network
Galveston Bay Foundation
Abilene Zoological Gardens
Cameron Park Zoo
Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park
Dallas World Aquarium
Ellen Trout Zoo
El Paso Zoological Society
Fort Worth Zoo
Gladys Porter Zoo
Houston Downtown Aquarium
Houston Zoo, Inc.
San Antonio Zoo
Texas State Aquarium
Sea Turtle Restoration Project
Kiss the Ocean
Dallas Interfaith Power & Light
Shark Research Institute
Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council
Houston Museum of Natural Science
Deep Abyss SCUBA
Fling Dive Charters
Wildlife In Need
Many legislative decisions often come down to how many citizens take the time to call their offices. It’s that simple, and that complicated at the same time. Getting people to care enough to participate in the democratic process, become informed on an issue, and have a sense of agency to speak on it is no mean feat. But in the battle to save the sharks, I have also seen individual Texans rise to the challenge with extraordinary results.
When I first became engaged in this issue in late 2011, I wondered what I could possibly do as a volunteer to make a difference. Since assuming the role of Texas chair of Shark Stewards, a San Francisco-based non-profit, I have witnessed the value of volunteers at every stage in the process. Individual Texans from ages 5 to 85 have shown their support by participating in special events at Whole Foods, attending educational events at aquariums, circulating petitions, lobbying legislators, spreading information, and making calls. Due to the overwhelming grassroots support for sharks, we have been able to convince the powerful few to hear the voice of many. Such an accomplishment is a victory in itself, one that we hope our senators will complete by passing our bill and allowing it to move to Governor Rick Perry’s office to become a law.
Regardless of the outcome of this legislation, Texans have been activated to conserve our oceans through the protection of sharks. As critical as collaboration has been in this endeavor, education is even more crucial. Children taught to respect the value, vitality and beauty of animals living in their natural habitats will not grow up to debase or objectify them.
We are losing approximately 150 species per day, or three every hour, causing what scientists term the 6th Great Extinction. At this rate, we should begin treating every day like Endangered Species Day. Unless we change attitudes and behavior of our children, our future leaders will continue allowing practices that perpetuate this staggering loss of biodiversity, to the detriment of us all. Here in Texas, advocates are off to a good start by working to save the shark. Regardless of the outcome of HB 852, let’s remind ourselves that the real work has only just begun.