Florida lawmakers push bills that would strengthen punishment for shark fin traders — but environmentalists say they're not tough enough

And the bills' sponsors might not be who you expect.

click to enlarge This lemon shark deserves to keep its fins. - Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
This lemon shark deserves to keep its fins.

Although it's 2017, there are still apparently thousands if not millions of people on this planet who believe that it's okay to a) pull sharks out of the water, cut their fins off and leave them to die and b) eat said fins in a soup because it's a dumb delicacy and screw you.

In Florida, despite existing laws at the state and federal levels that are supposed to curb the practice of finning sharks, tossing the mutilated animals back in the water and selling the appendages while those apex predators starve on the ocean floor, it is still apparently happening. And, it's a big moneymaker for those who manage to find loopholes that allow the sale of fins.

But some lawmakers — Republicans, no less — are pushing bills that would boost the penalty for those caught with shark fins that were clearly cut off while a boat was still on the water. While it is still somehow legal to kill a small amount of sharks and remove their fins once the boat docks, more and more people are at least starting to recognize that finning sharks at sea is an act of animal cruelty that has to stop.

The State House version of the bill, H.B. 823, cleared the House Careers & Competition Subcommittee on Tuesday, the News Service of Florida reported. If it passes, it would increase the fine for possessing "separated" shark fins ninefold — from $500 to $4,500 and make it a second-degree misdemeanor.

Among the bill's sponsors, perhaps surprisingly, is State Rep. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), who served as co-chair for the Florida leg of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. While a focus of that campaign was to do away with many environmental regulations, of which curbing finning is one, Gruters said the practice is cruel and jeopardizes the sustainability of ocean ecosystems.

"It is a cruel and inhumane practice of cutting off shark fins while out at sea, leaving the sharks to drown or starve to death," Gruters said, according to NSF. "And the practice is having an unsustainable impact on the shark population in every ocean on the globe."

The bill has its requisite Senate companion, S.B. 884 (sponsored by Elkton Republican Sen. Travis Hutson), which the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee is set to take up Wednesday.

Environmentalists say the bill has been weakened since it was filed, though, and fear it would do little to fight the trade. The bill had originally proposed making sale and trade of fins a first-degree misdemeanor that could result in the loss of fishing permits for commercial or recreational fishermen found to be in violation, reported the Florida Times-Union. Going after possession rather than sale or trade will do little to stop finning from happening, they said.

“There’s some opposition from the fishing industry saying the fins are the most valuable part and they should be able to sell them if they catch the shark and land it legally,” Erin Handy, an organizer for the Florida leg of the nonprofit Oceana’s Climate & Energy Campaign.

In seeking to appeal to to lawmakers from an economic standpoint, she added that the economic benefit of having healthy sharks throughout Florida's waters, which attracts divers and other visitors who want to see them in their natural environs, surpasses the economic benefit one gleans from cutting off their fins and leaving them to die.

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