Oceans Activist Ted Danson on California's Shark Fin Ban (Exclusive Q&A)

Kate Danson

The actor tells THR, "You're more likely to be killed by your kitchen toaster than a shark."

On Oct. 7, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans the possession and sale of shark fins in the state. The legislation is intended to help preserve worldwide shark populations and protect them from the practice of finning, in which a live shark's fins are hacked off and it is often left to slowly die as it sinks into the ocean.

Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins and many species are imperiled. The California law follows on the heels of the Shark Conservation Act, passed in 2010 by the U.S. Congress, which bans finning in United States waters.

"Researchers estimate that some shark populations have declined more than 90 percent, portending grave threats to our environment and commercial fishing," said Governor Brown.

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CSI star Ted Danson, a founding board member of the nonprofit ocean protection group Oceana, spoke with THR about the news. Danson is also the author of the recently published book Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them (Rodale, $32.50).

The Hollywood Reporter: How badly is fishing impacting sharks worldwide?

Ted Danson: It's huge. Globally we catch tens of millions of sharks each year, mainly for their fins. Shark species in some areas are down over 90 percent, which is awful to think about since they're so important to the balance of our oceans. Demand for fins for shark fin soup is the largest driving force behind that. Sharks have swum the oceans for over 400 million years, but now we're threatening this critically important species for the purpose of making soup – it's sad and wasteful.

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THR: How much help in protecting sharks do you think this new law will have?

Danson: This is a big step in the right direction. California is responsible for selling, trading and distributing large amounts of shark fins that come from all over the world. This legislation will help end that. It joins new legislation recently passed in Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, adding up to coast wide protections for sharks, which is great news and a big improvement over just a couple of years ago. Sharks are in real trouble and they need all the help they can get.

THR: Have you ever interacted with or swam with sharks?

Danson: No. And, it is my fervent wish that I never do.

THR: Do you feel a sense of momentum with your fight?

Danson: Certainly. In fact there has been momentum surrounding shark conservation for a while now. Oceana has a long running campaign to protect sharks all over the world and in the past year helped pass bills in the U.S. and Chile to improve shark finning regulations. In addition, Oceana successfully advocated for protections for hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks from international fisheries in the Atlantic. Oregon and Washington recently prohibited the trade of shark fins and this new California legislation makes it a west coast sweep. We're finally starting to realize that sharks are worth more alive than dead. As the fight continues, we hope to secure additional protections for vulnerable shark species, reduce shark finning and reduce demand for shark fins through sales bans.

THR: What is one of the most misunderstood things about sharks?

Danson: Thanks to the hard work of Oceana and other like-minded organizations, I think that people are starting to appreciate sharks for what they really are: apex predators with a vital ecological role. But certainly there are still some underlying misconceptions. Many people continue to think of sharks as man-eating beasts. Sharks are enormously powerful and wild creatures, but you're more likely to be killed by your kitchen toaster than a shark!  People also don’t realize that when you remove an apex predator from an ecosystem it can really mess everything else up — in North Carolina, according to a study in Science, one of the main iconic fisheries, bay scallops, crashed when the big sharks disappeared and the ray population exploded (and apparently ate up all the scallops).

THR: Has Oceana been involved in advancing this legislation?

Danson: Oceana’s Pacific team of advocates and scientists has been on top of this from the start. They reviewed language for the bill and coordinated with legislative authors and other supporters to help get this important bill passed. Oceana did a great amount of outreach in California, Oregon, and Washington, and helped fund advertisements to inform and inspire the public. Nearly ten thousand Oceana supporters from California signed on to letters of support for the bill, and Oceana’s policy team followed up by lobbying long and hard — and it worked. They always say that while the oceans are at a tipping point, there is something we can do about it. This is proof of that. Kudos to California for letting science lead the way and ultimately making the right decision