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Legal Matters: Why should you care about shark finning?

In 2013, Maryland became the first East Coast state to pass a law prohibiting the sale, distribution or possession of shark fins. Who cares and why should we add this information to other facts cluttering our brains?

The "who cares" roster includes environmentalists, the Humane Society of the United States, Oceana and other organizations that are trying to save sharks from going extinct by lobbying to ban trade in their fins. The practice of "shark finning" - capturing sharks, slicing off their fins and throwing the animals back into the water, where they die because they cannot swim without fins - has been killing millions of sharks each year. Sharks are now an endangered species.

Shark fins are used to make shark fin soup, a stringy, gelatinous liquid that is believed to have curative properties.

Information about Maryland's shark fin prohibition can probably be stored in a little-used part of your brain, to be retrieved if you attend a wedding reception where the soup is served or if you travel to China. Most restaurants have taken shark fin soup off their menus, but it is still popular at Asian weddings and at Chinese banquets. It would be illegal to serve shark fin soup at a wedding held in Maryland, but the soup would be legal in other states. The soup may also legally be served in China, although the Chinese government has pledged to stop serving it at official banquets.

Demand for shark fins has been declining, the Wall Street Journal reports. In addition to environmental issues and efforts to make possession of shark's fins illegal, the fins can cost about $300 per pound.

The Maryland law, which went into effect Oct. 1, describes shark fins as "the raw, dried or otherwise processed fin or tail of a shark."

The law makes exceptions for museums, colleges or universities using shark fins for display or research purposes and for commercial or recreational fishermen who have state or federal permits to land sharks and who take the fins according to terms of their permits.

Is shark finning in Maryland as unlikely as blue crab fishing in the Arctic Circle?

Maybe not.

According to the National Aquarium Water Blog, 12 species of sharks live in the Chesapeake Bay and as many as 62 species live off the Atlantic coast of North America.

Other states with bans on finning or possession of sharks' fins include all West Coast states, Hawaii and Illinois. Shark finning is illegal throughout the U.S., but it is legal to import shark fins.

"Because they have few natural predators, are slow to mature and produce very few young, shark populations are very sensitive to environmental and commercial fishing pressures. Their continued depletion could cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems around the world," the National Aquarium blog reports.

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