California Governor Signs Shark Finning Ban into Law

On October 7, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Shark Finning Ban (Assembly Bill 376), which will prohibit the sale, trade and possession of shark fins throughout the state. However, the bill still allows sport fishermen who catch a shark to eat its fin themselves or have the shark stuffed for personal display, such as for a trophy.

The bill’s supporters, including environmentalists, believe that shark finning is a threat to the world’s shark population, and that the survival of some types of sharks is directly linked to a ban on shark finning. Along with Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), Fong introduced the bill with the belief that the shark population needs to recover from a global overfishing epidemic that has wiped out large numbers of sharks. A poll among California’s 1.1 million Chinese Americans indicated that 70 percent favored the ban. Other supporters of the bill include celebrities, retired Chinese NBA player Yao Ming, environmental groups and activist organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States.

Shark finning is commonly practiced in Asian countries, where fishermen at sea slice the dorsal fin off of the living shark and toss the injured animal back into the ocean, as there is a low demand for shark meat (while some sharks fished are used for their meat, leather and liver oil, the majority of finned sharks are not used for these purposes). Blue sharks are the most common type of shark hunted for their fins; an estimated 10 million blue shark fins are collected per year. The majority of harvested shark fins are used in shark fin soup, a traditional – and expensive – Chinese delicacy, which is typically served at weddings and other formal occasions, and is seen as a symbol of elevated status. The demand for shark fins is increasing, making the trade continuously profitable. Shark fins are also used in makeup, vitamins and medicine. 

According to the LA Times, dried shark fins can sell for as much as $2,000 a pound, and caterers can lose up to $200 per plate if they omit shark fin soup from their banquet menus. The newspaper reports that Brown said in a statement, “The practice of cutting the fins off of living sharks and dumping them back in the ocean is not only cruel, but it harms the health of our oceans. In the interest of future generations, I have signed this bill.”

Populations of some sharks have declined by 85 to 99 percent in the past 20 years, according to researchers. It is estimated that 73 million sharks each year are killed when their fins are sliced off, causing them to bleed to death. Eighty-five percent of shark fins devoured in the United States are eaten by California diners, and the state’s shark fin trade is the largest outside of Asia.

The signing of this bill hasn’t quelled protests against it, however. Chinese restaurant chefs and consumers of traditional Chinese food say that the new law intentionally attacks Chinese cuisine and tradition. California’s Asian legislators were split between the decision, with Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and others in favor of the ban, while some legislators called the bill racist and discriminatory, as shark fin soup only appears on Chinese menus. Some legislators also expressed concern that the bill does not prevent endangered sharks from being fished for their meat or other purposes.

California’s ban means that the sale of shark fins is now banned throughout the West Coast, as Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Guam also have bans in place. The new law will take effect on January 1, 2012 and will allow the sale of shark fins acquired before the law was signed until July 1, 2013.

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