The movement to help bring an end to the cruel and destructive practice of shark-finning has reached California in the form of Assembly Bill 376, introduced Monday by lawmakers Paul Fong and Jared Huffman. If passed it'll outlaw the possession, sale, trade and distribution of shark fins in the Golden State.
Why is this important? Because sharks, as top predators, play a paramount role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem, and because they're being slaughtered -- mostly to satisfy demand in China for shark-fin soup -- at a rate that is not sustainable. As many as 70 million sharks are killed globally each year, according to some estimates, and experts predict some species could be wiped out if widespread finning continues.
As noted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Monday in its Sea Notes blog, California represents a significant domestic market for shark fins, and California ports are key points of entry for all shark fins entering the U.S.
The aquarium is a lead sponsor of the legislation. In a statement, executive director Julie Packard said, "Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins – an unsustainable slaughter of some of the ocean’s most magnificent animals. Killing sharks at this rate, and pushing an estimated one-third of open-ocean shark species to the brink of extinction, does more than rob our children and grandchildren of these creatures.
"As research shows, it also damages the ecosystems that support many other species – degrading habitats like coral reefs and kelp forests, and ultimately affecting the fish populations that we depend on for food."
Shark finning, as many are aware, involves the removal of fins from captured sharks. In most cases, the shark is then tossed overboard to make room for more fins. Often times, the shark is alive during this process, so it sinks to the bottom and suffers a slow death.
The movement to end this practice has enjoyed some victories. The U.S., for example, does not allow finning in its waters, but still allows the sale and distribution of fins. This leaves it up to states to take more protective measures.
Hawaii took the lead recently by passing legislation similar to what Fong and Huffman have introduced. As a result, shark-fins cannot be possessed in Hawaii and shark-fin soup, considered a delicacy among Chinese and others in Asian communities, is no longer openly advertised on restaurant menus.
Opposition in Hawaii was limited mostly to owners of Chinese restaurants, and the same might end up being true in California.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and several restaurant owners will oppose the bill. The senator, who is a candidate for mayor of San Francisco, said in a statement that he was concerned about overfishing but added: "The proposed state law to ban all shark fins from consumption -- regardless of species or how they were fished or harvested -- is the wrong approach and an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine. Some sharks are well-populated and many can and should be sustainably fished."
This is debatable, given the indiscriminate methods used to catch sharks and that the predators are slow to mature and reproduce, and have only a few offspring.
Said Packard: "California has long been a leader in ocean conservation. Enacting AB 376 would be another important step in protecting our ocean resources for future generations. Because California represents one of the largest markets for shark fins outside Asia, stopping the sale and distribution of shark fins here will have impacts that resonate worldwide."
This is an issue the environmental community is watching closely. AB 376 will be heard in policy committee in March.
-- Pete Thomas
Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium