BALTIMORE (AP) -- Maryland lawmakers have joined a handful of states in passing a ban on shark fin sales with a slight twist, crafting a measure that is supported by conservationists as well as a commercial fishing group.
Environmental groups have long pushed for shark fin bans, noting shark populations are being drastically reduced by the practice of finning. The practice involves leaving sharks to die after having their fins cut off for the lucrative trade in the Asian delicacy.
One trade group, however, argued that California's more extensive ban hurts fishermen who catch spiny dogfish, a small shark also used for fish and chips that is sustainably harvested. The Maryland law exempts the shark species along with several others. Maryland's law was supported by the Sustainable Fisheries Association, a Massachusetts nonprofit founded by four seafood processors.
John Whiteside, an attorney for the association, said other states should consider Maryland's law as a model.
"This is the way to approach it. You account for the fisheries management plans that are in place and you work with federal and state regulatory agencies to craft something that doesn't create an inherent conflict," Whiteside said.
While fins account for 3 percent of a spiny dogfish, they represent nearly 40 percent of profits from sales, the association said.
In a posting to the Federal Register on a proposed rule stemming from the federal Shark Conservation Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service noted Thursday that state shark fin laws have the potential to undermine management of federal shark fisheries.
"Although state shark fin laws are also intended to conserve sharks, they may not unduly interfere with the conservation and management of federal fisheries," the service said in its posting, which seeks comment on the proposed rule.
Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon and Washington have enacted shark fin laws and other states are considering legislation. Maryland's governor signed the bill Thursday.
In neighboring Delaware, a bill that also exempts spiny dogfish and smooth dogfish has passed both houses in the state legislature.
The bills were passed as shark populations drop worldwide. More than two dozen species are officially endangered, and more than 100 others are considered vulnerable or near threatened. Conservationists at a global wildlife conference voted earlier this year to regulate shark species threatened by the fin trade.
Some believe eliminating the market for the fins is the only way to stop finning.
Iris Ho, Wildlife Campaigns Manager for the Humane Society International, said the California bill exempts shark fin possession by licensed commercial or recreational fishermen, but they cannot sell the fins. While the United States has well-regulated fisheries, it is difficult for consumers to know what kind of shark fin they are buying, where it was caught and whether the shark was finned, Ho said.
"So, the best way to protect sharks and prevent shark finning is to close the market for shark fins," Ho said.
Ho said her group was working on public education campaigns in China, the largest market for shark fins.
In California, Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, who authored his state's more restrictive law, said in a statement that "goal of the bill was to protect the world's dwindling shark population by closing our ports and borders to the fin trade."
Fong said the state was the second-largest consumer of shark fins and a global trafficking center.
Import bans have also been proposed in the United States, but that is likely to raise trade challenges by other countries who could claim U.S. fishermen are being given preferential treatment, Ho said.
About 15 Maryland watermen reported landing more than 1.5 million pounds of shark with a dockside value of more than $653,000 in 2011, the majority being dogfish, according to a legislative analysis prepared for Maryland lawmakers.
"If we are allowed to harvest those sharks legally, then we should be allowed to use 100 percent of those sharks, if possible. That's a true sustainable fishery," said John Martin, who has fished for spiny dogfish and left commercial fishing last year to run his family's wholesale and retail seafood company in Ocean City.
Martin said the United States already bans finning and conservation groups are working to implement similar international regulations.
"So, leave what we do alone and let that do its job," Martin said.
Maryland accounts for about 6 percent of the Atlantic spiny dogfish harvest, with 60 percent of the catch allocated by fisheries managers to states between Maine and Connecticut, and another 25 percent between Virginia and North Carolina, according the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Sen. Brian Frosh, who introduced the Maryland Senate version of the bill, said he originally wanted a complete ban on shark fins, but compromised to accommodate watermen who make a living catching spiny dogfish.
"I think it's a strong step forward. Like most legislation, it's not everything that I would have hoped for, or that I did hope for when we started out, but I think it's an important measure," Frosh said.