University of Washington biologist Sam Wasser got a discouraging phone call last September.
“I got a call from our Fish and Wildlife agents on the border,” Wasser said. They said, “‘Sam, I am so frustrated because last week one ton of shark fins came through our port and I had to let it go.’”
Wasser wants tougher penalties for wildlife trafficking, which is why he supports Initiative 1401, which would impose new penalties in Washington for trafficking in products like shark fins and ivory.
Billionaire Paul Allen is funding the measure, and earlier this week at Seattle Cinerama screened a documentary for which he is a co-executive producer, “Racing Extinction.”
The event was one that Seattle mogul Paul Allen was uniquely positioned to offer. He owns the movie theater, helped produce the documentary and is funding the ballot measure to protect endangered species.
The screening was also a fundraiser.Barbara Bennett, president of Paul Allen’s company Vulcan Inc., told the audience that Allen’s interests include passing this new law. “Paul’s dedication goes beyond the arts. Wildlife conservation is extremely important, and of course, that’s why we’re here tonight.”
Bennett said Allen would match donations given that night, in addition to the $1.5 million he’s already spent.
Wasser said the U.S. is the second biggest consumer of wildlife contraband after China, and current laws are inadequate.
Under the initiative, people who sell or trade parts of 10 different endangered species could face a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Tom Palmersheim came up from Tukwila to attend the fundraiser.
“We are hitting so many tipping points with ocean acidification and things like that,” he said, issues which the documentary also addressed. Palmersheim said he’d be surprised if the measure didn’t pass.
“I don’t think the average person thinks they have a whole lot to lose from stopping the illegal wildlife trade.”
But the National Rifle Association said the initiative would punish law-abiding citizens who collect firearms, jewelry and other items. NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide said most people don’t have receipts for family heirlooms, and federal law already forbids wildlife trafficking. He said it’s unclear what the new penalties would accomplish.
The group has not yet funded an opposition campaign, although Dalseide said, “we’ll definitely make our voice heard.” A group called the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition has registered with the state but not reported any contributions.
The NRA has faced off against Allen’s wealth before – in 2014 Allen contributed to the successful campaign to require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers in Washington state.