June 9, 2011 — A University of Virginia law student and a May law graduate are using their final project in an advocacy skills course sponsored by the Program in Law and Public Service to pursue a real-life campaign against the sale of shark fins.
The project extended onto the opinion pages of one of the state's largest newspapers last month when the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an editorial by one of the students, Cameron Jefferies, who earned a master of law degree in May.
In the op-ed, Jefferies argues against shark finning – a process in which fishermen remove the fins of sharks, which are used in a type of soup – and proposes that Virginia should ban the possession of shark fins. The article was part of a final project for the Public Interest Law and Advocacy Skills class.
"The class was designed to expose students to the kinds of skills and strategies that public interest lawyers often employ outside of court to pursue change and reform," said law professor Andy Block, who taught the course.
As a final project, students in the class worked with a partner to create a multi-strategy advocacy campaign around an issue. They then developed strategy memos, sample press releases, sample op-eds, mock websites and other tools that lawyers might use outside of court to sway opinion and decision-makers.
Jefferies and partner Stacee Karras, then a second-year law student, tackled shark finning, a practice involving the removal of fins from live sharks, which are then dumped back into the ocean, Jefferies said.
"Ultimately, they drown, get eaten by predators, or bleed to death," Jefferies wrote in the op-ed. "Biologists warn that 73 million sharks are killed each year solely for their fins, and some environmental organizations suggest that this number might be as high as 100 million. Fishermen fin sharks because fins are worth more than shark meat, and not keeping the shark body onboard fishing vessels means more of the valuable fins can be stored."
Shark fin soup is a traditional Chinese dish served at special occasions such as weddings and banquets, and is considered a marker of wealth. In response to its growing popularity, Hawaii has banned the possession of shark fins, and other West Coast states are considering similar proposals. Block said the shark-finning campaign was an example of students working on a project related to issues they were interested in addressing in the real world.
"It turned out that some of the students went way beyond the class assignment and designed campaigns that they wanted to work on right now," Block said.
The public advocacy course featured several presenters, including Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page editor Cindy Paris and Law School admissions director Cordel Faulk, a former Times-Dispatch op-ed page editor and columnist, who gave the students pointers on editorial writing.
Jefferies, a Fulbright Scholar through the Fulbright Canada-U.S. program, first became aware of the issue while studying marine biology in his native Canada.
"I am interested in the conservation status of large marine mammals and fish, and shark finning is a particularly intriguing issue since, unlike many conservation issues, the consumption of shark fin soup is the readily discernible root issue and driving force behind shark finning," he said. "It is time to address this head-on."
The pair also created a website on the issue and consulted with a variety of professionals in Virginia, from charter fishing captains opposed to the practice because it harms the shark population to Peter Chang, a local Chinese food chef who condemns shark fin soup because of the harmful consequences, Block said. Their goal is to make Virginia the first state on the East Coast to ban the possession of shark fins.
"Now that the course is over, we are planning to reach out to stakeholder groups and local environmental organizations that may be willing to support our initiative," Jefferies said. "We are also hoping to work with fellow law students at the University of Virginia to help work toward our ultimate goal of proposing new legislation in Virginia."
Jefferies said he planned to pursue a similar campaign in Canada when he returned home in late May.
Block said he hoped that the class can act as an incubator of sorts for future advocacy projects, and said he was pleased at the extent to which students were interested in implementing their hypothetical campaigns in the real world.
Other projects include a proposal for intervention programs for veterans accused of nonviolent crimes, as well as an initiative to encourage prosecutors to reach out to immigrant populations who might otherwise be deterred from reporting crimes because of a fear of contact with authorities.
"Whether it was when they were on their feet, or in their written work, I was incredibly impressed with the creativity and high skill level that the students displayed during the semester," Block said. "They are already very talented advocates, often more talented than they realize, and it will be exciting to watch what they do with their careers, or even next year at law school, for that matter."