The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expressed support today for Senate legislation intended to strengthen shark conservation but expressed concern about a provision that it says would encroach on other countries' sovereignty.

Stephanie Hunt of NOAA's legislative affairs office said the agency supports provisions requiring that sharks brought to U.S. ports have their fins intact. That policy is already in effect along the Atlantic Coast, but Pacific ports use a biomass ratio system that critics say is full of loopholes.

The Shark Conservation Act passed by a House voice vote in March, and companion legislation is currently before the Senate Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee. The subcommittee said last week that it would not act on the bill until NOAA submitted comments on the measure.

Hunt said that making attached fins a national requirement would strengthen NOAA's ability to enforce the U.S. ban on shark-finning -- the practice of cutting off shark fins and dumping carcasses at sea. She said the rule would also help NOAA properly identify caught species, a necessity for monitoring and enforcing shark fishing quotas.

Shark-finning is lucrative, as fins fetch more than $100 per pound in East Asian markets to meet demand for shark fin soup. But critics say finning is cruel and contributes to overfishing.

But while NOAA supports the legislation's intent, Hunt said it is concerned about provisions requiring NOAA's parent, the Commerce Department, to identify countries whose shark conservation plans do not pass U.S. muster, either in international waters or within their own exclusive economic zones. If the named countries fail to improve their plans, they could face import bans on some of their seafood products.

NOAA is concerned about a bill that would instruct it to take action "on countries for what they do inside their own waters," Hunt said, saying it could open up the agency to lawsuits.

A spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee, said the senator had not seen NOAA's evaluation of the bill and could not comment. A spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the bill's sponsor, declined to comment on NOAA's appraisal.

Matt Rand, director of shark conservation for the Pew Environment Group, said NOAA's conditional support was encouraging and expressed confidence that problems the agency identified could be solved. He said international provisions were meant to give the administration an enforcement tool.

"These are good signs that we're all in the same place and that this is a policy that's ripe for congressional approval," he said. "It seems to me that this is a policy that is following public sentiment. We need to move shark conservation forward before it's too late."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500