WASHINGTON — Congress on Tuesday passed legislation to better protect sharks, creatures that swam the oceans before the age of dinosaurs but now are being killed by the millions for their fins, a delicacy used in a traditional Chinese soup.
Conservationists called the measure a major step to save a species in trouble. They estimate that 73 million sharks are killed annually to support the shark fin trade, and that 30 percent of the world's species are threatened or nearly threatened with extinction. The loss of too many top predators can disrupt the balance of the populations of other species.
The Senate passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on Monday, and the House of Representatives passed its version with the same language Tuesday, sending it to the president's desk for his signature. Supporters anticipate that he'll sign it.
The legislation requires that sharks caught legally must be landed with fins attached in all U.S. waters. Regulations already had banned cutting off the fins and dumping the bodies in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, but not in the Pacific. The requirement that the fins remain on the bodies for inspection gives fisheries management officials a clearer picture of how many sharks and what species were caught.
The legislation also closes a loophole in a previous law that allowed fins to be cut off at sea and transferred to non-fishing vessels.
"Our oceans have reached a tipping point, and sharks are essential to keeping them healthy for years to come. Today is a big step forward for shark conservation, both in the U.S. and internationally," Beth Lowell, the federal policy director of the conservation group Oceana, said in a statement.
Matt Rand, the director of a global campaign to save sharks at the Pew Environment Group, said: "What it says to the world is that the United States is concerned about shark conservation and starting to take further steps to help save the world's shark populations." Rand said the measure would give the U.S. credibility when it tried to persuade other nations to follow suit.
The Pew Environment Group said that some shark populations were in serious decline. Scalloped hammerheads and dusky sharks along the East Coast have declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s.
Hawaii banned shark fin soup earlier this year. A state law prohibits the possession, sale, trade or distribution of shark fins.
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