It won't get the same press as the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but the U.S. made an important conservation leap this week by banning the deadly practice of shark finning.

The Shark Conservation Act, passed Tuesday, bans the controversial yet lucrative fishing practice of catching sharks, cutting off their fins and dumping the still-living creatures back into the water where they slowly and painfully drown.

Shark fins are highly prized for their use in shark fin soup. Many shark populations around the world have dropped 90 percent or more as a result of rampant overfishing.

The U.S. actually banned shark finning in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in 2000, but loopholes in that law allowed the practice to continue in the Pacific. The new law requires fishing vessels to retain the entire shark carcass while at sea, a measure that will help authorities track the number of sharks that are caught and which vessels come from nations that have more lax shark conservation rules. It also forbids any vessel in U.S. waters from carrying shark fins unless they remain attached to the shark's body.

"We've finally realized that sharks are worth more alive than dead," Oceana's Elizabeth Griffin Wilson said in a prepared statement after the act passed the Senate on Monday. "While shark fins and other shark products are valuable, the role sharks play in the marine ecosystem is priceless. The U.S. has helped set a high standard for other countries and international management organizations to follow."

The act was a long time coming. It was first introduced on January 6, 2009, and passed a vote in the House of Representatives on March 2 of that year. It was delayed in the Senate this year when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) demanded that the $5 million bill pay for itself, a feat accomplished through cuts in the federal fisheries grant program. It was finally voted on by the Senate Monday, then again by the House on Tuesday. It now awaits President Obama's signature.

Image: An agent of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration counting confiscated shark fins, via Wikipedia