MANHATTAN (CN) - The National Resources Defense Council thinks there may be something fishy lurking beneath the surface of a proposed federal rule undermining state regulations of the shark fin trade.
The environmental group filed a federal complaint here Friday, demanding documents detailing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's contacts with "outside entities" about a contested reading of federal law.
On May 2, 2013, NOAA proposed a rule interpreting the Shark Conservation Act as pre-empting state laws "if they are inconsistent with" their federal counterparts.
While several states ban the sale and possession of shark fins within their territories, federal law regulates fishing behavior only at sea and forbids cutting off a shark's fin up to the point of landing, NRDC attorney Seth Atkinson noted in a blog post last year.
Regarding the new lawsuit, Atkinson emphasized that access to the NOAA's records may expose hidden motives.
"To some in the conservation community, NOAA's position in the proposed rule was so ill-informed and out of the blue that it seemed potentially the result of industry influence," Atkinson said in an email. "NRDC does not have a specific view on that question, but we hope to cast light on what has heretofore been an extremely closed-door process."
The group contends that undermining the state bans will threaten the marine ecosystem.
"Sharks are apex predators that are vital to maintaining the health of oceans and coastal ecosystems," their five-page complaint states. "However, shark populations are in decline worldwide, as tens of millions of sharks are killed each year to feed the market for shark fins."
Roughly 100 million sharks are killed every year with fins from 73 million of them used to make shark-fin soup, a delicacy seen as a status symbol in China, according to the nonprofit group WildAid. A pair of shark fins can fetch up to $350 a pound in Asia.
NOAA never explained why it believed that state laws intended to combat this trade conflicted with federal law and should be pre-empted, according to the lawsuit.
In a Freedom of Information Act request on April 1, 2014, the NRDC sought "records relating to contacts, meetings or communications between NOA and outside entities concerning federal or state regulation of shark fin sales, possession and trading," according to the complaint.
Although NOAA immediately acknowledged receipt of the request and granted a fee waiver, the agency still has not produced any documents or a final determination about whether it will comply, the NRDC says.
The NRDC wants U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos to order the records' disclosure.
The organization is represented by attorney Mitchell Bernard.
NOAA's spokeswoman Kate Brogan declined to comment because she said the agency has not yet been served with the lawsuit.
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