HOUSTON (CN) – Sharks caught in U.S. waters are dressed in short order, fins are removed and carcasses are packed in trucks bound for Mexico. But an unconstitutional Texas law mandating sharks remain intact has cut off the Mexican market, shark-meat purveyors claim in a federal lawsuit.
Texas-based Ochoa Seafood Enterprises Inc. says in the complaint filed Tuesday in Houston federal court that its business depends on shark meat.
It gets 60 percent of its income from buying the meat from dealers in Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina and shipping all of it in refrigerated trucks through Texas to clients in Mexico City, where it’s filleted and put on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus.
But the company hit a snag last July when a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department agent contacted its owner and said an inspection of its refrigerated truck at the Mexico border had revealed it was shipping shark carcasses with the fins and tails removed in violation of Texas law.
Joined by its shark-meat supplier, Louisiana-based Venice Seafood LLC, and the trade group Sustainable Shark Alliance, Ochoa Seafood sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Carter Smith.
The plaintiffs are represented by Shaun Gehan in Washington, D.C. and Fabio Dworschak with Kelley Drye & Warren in Houston.
Though the legislation went on the books in July 2016, Ochoa Seafood says it did not know Texas intended to apply the law to shark meat headed to foreign markets until it heard from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, or TPWD, two years later.
Ochoa Seafood says TPWD has not fined or cited it for the truckload of finned shark, but due to its uncertainty about the law it has not bought any sharks or made any shipments of sharks from the U.S. to Mexico since the agency contacted its owner.
Venice Seafood says the Texas law is also hurting its business because 90 percent of the shark meat it sells is shipped through Texas to Mexico. It sells the fins to a U.S. company that dries them and exports them to China.
Shark fin soup has been a delicacy in China for hundreds of years. The fins are also dried and ground up and put in traditional Chinese medicines believed to enhance libido, beautify skin, prevent heart disease and lower cholesterol.
The Texas law is meant to stop the sale of shark fins within the state.
But its provision that a “shark’s fins be ‘naturally attached’ to each shark carcass shipped from, to, or through the state” is threatening the livelihoods of shark fishermen and meat dealers along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts because it conflicts with federal law.
Federal law requires licensed shark fishermen and meat dealers to report weekly to the National Marine Fisheries Service the total weight of the carcasses, without the fins, of each species, and the total fin weight of all sharks combined, for the sharks they catch and butcher.
The most effective way to comply with the federal weighing requirements, the shark purveyors say, is to separate the fins from the carcass at the point of landing, where the boat returns to shore.
In addition, they say, it’s best to cut off a shark’s fins and tail as soon as possible to drain the blood, chemicals in which will quickly turn to ammonia and spoil the meat.
Texas’ statute is ambiguous, the shark-meat producers argue, as it allows companies to possess shark carcasses with the fins removed if the meat “has been finally processed and delivered to the final destination or to a certified wholesale or retail dealer,” but it’s unclear if butchers are violating the law by possessing shark fins once they remove them from the carcasses.
Due to the law’s requirement that shark be shipped intact to processors across the state, the challengers say, Texas has made it harder for its law enforcement agencies to track shark fins to ensure they are not being sold illegally.
Other states mandate that shark fins are destroyed at the dock.
Ochoa Seafood and Venice Seafood claim the Texas law has had a dramatic impact on shark fishing in U.S. waters because it is blocking access to Mexico, one of the top markets for U.S. exports.
The season starts Jan. 1, and by Feb. 8 of last year 170 metric tons of shark had been caught in the western Gulf of Mexico.
“Over the same period this year less than 16 metric tons of sharks have been landed, a decline of more than 90 percent,” the complaint states.
The shark-meat purveyors seek a declaration the Texas law violates the Commerce and Supremacy Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and that Texas cannot regulate interstate or international shipments of federally regulated shark species.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Gehan, told Courthouse News that Texas has effectively shut down the nation’s largest shark fishery.
“Its actions have impacted small fishing communities throughout the Gulf, causing widespread harm to hardworking fishing families,” he said.
He said the U.S. is the global leader in shark conservation. Government imposed shark-catch caps have increased their numbers as shown by federal surveys.
“Unfortunately, some lawmakers and environmental organizations obscure this fact by conflating cruel and unsustainable shark fishing practices in other parts of the world with the very conservative approach to shark management in this country,” he said in an email.
AG Paxton’s office did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the litigation.