To protect a toothy ocean predator, some metro Omaha high school students want to put some teeth into Nebraska law.
The students from the Omaha and Papillion-La Vista school districts Friday urged state lawmakers to ban the possession of shark fins.
Shark-fin soup is an Asian delicacy. Fins are also used in traditional remedies. To satisfy demand in east Asian countries, fishermen are decimating world shark populations, the students said.
In a practice called finning, fishermen catch a shark, cut off its fin and throw the animal back into the water to starve, suffocate or be eaten by other fish.
The practice kills somewhere between 70 million and 273 million sharks a year, according to estimates by world organizations and wildlife groups. A federal agency says it could be closer to 38 million.
The students attend classes at the districts' zoo academy at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. They met with several lawmakers Friday at the zoo to pitch a bill.
Although the cause would appear a low priority in landlocked Nebraska, students displayed a $4.99 can of shark-fin soup they purchased from an Omaha Asian market.
The issue is similar, they say, to laws adopted to prohibit trafficking of elephant tusks, rhino horns and tiger parts.
Shark finning removes the apex predator necessary to the health of all the oceans, disrupting ecosystems, they said.
The students' presentation included bloody videos of fishermen cutting fins off sharks and thousands of fins piled up at processing centers.
State Sen Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha said afterward he favors taking action. “It’s not just a coastal issue,” he said.
He said that even if there’s minimal trade of shark-fin products in Nebraska, lawmakers would send a strong message by voicing their support to protect the oceans.
Nebraska would be the ninth state to outlaw the buying, selling and possession of any products made of shark fins.
Pat Purkhiser, lead instructor at the zoo academy, said there’s little flavor in shark fin, so chefs mix in meat from crabs and other fish to give it flavor.
The soup is a status symbol for the wealthy, he said. Earlier this month, the Chinese government banned serving shark-fin dishes at official government dinners.
Brett Homme, a senior at Papillion-La Vista South High, said Nebraskans will support a ban if they learn more about finning.
He said supporters of a ban have to fight the perception of sharks as villains, perpetrated by movies such as “Jaws,” the Steven Spielberg tale of a great white shark hunting humans. “We need to show them the other side,” Homme said.
While sharks kill about a dozen people a year, fishermen kill as many as 11,400 sharks an hour, he said.
Bailey Kustka, also a senior at Papio South, said sharks typically mind their own business unless provoked.
She said people can follow the students’ cause on Facebook and Twitter at No Fins, No Future.
Dennis Pate, zoo director, said the students’ session with lawmakers was an important day for the zoo, indicating the zoo is not only an attraction but “a place of action.”