Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, plans to introduce a bill that would ban the sale of shark fin soup in California.
But the effort to phase out this traditional Chinese delicacy could cause a rift among the eight members of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus. Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has already come out against the idea.
Fong is carrying the bill along with another Bay Area Democrat, Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. Both are considered strong environmental votes. The pair plan to introduce their bill with a press conference in San Francisco on Monday – which also happens to be the heavily Asian-American city where Yee is considered the front-runner to be elected mayor this fall.
The draft, which has been reviewed by Legislative Counsel, would make it “unlawful for any person to possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin.”
There would be an exception for anyone who currently holds a valid permit to possess shark fins from the Dept. of Fish & Game, including permits to land whole sharks. These permits could last up to another two years, but could not be renewed.
The fins are used in a soup sometimes served at weddings and other special occasions. The soup, made with the softened cartilage and other tissue around the fins, is known for being bland and having a strange consistency. But it has grown in popularity in recent years, both with Chinese Americans and among China’s growing and status-oriented middle class.
The dish has been controversial because of the existence of large factory “shark finning” ships. These vessels catch large numbers of sharks, with the crew slicing off the valuable fins and throwing the rest of the animal back into the sea to die.
Adam Keigwin, Yee’s chief of staff, noted that the practice of shark finning is already illegal in U.S. waters, as is importing shark fins obtained through the practice.
“The Senator certainly supports existing law and the federal law against shark finning,” Keigwin said. “He does not believe sharks should be killed for the fins and just dumped. That said, there is a lawful way to allow restaurants to offer shark fin soup.”
A complete ban, Kiegwin said, would hurt legitimate business owners who want to operate within the law, and would also affect all shark species, not just endangered species. The proper place for enforcement, he said, is shipments coming in. He also noted that shark steaks are for sale many places.
“The sharks those steaks came from have fins,” Keigwin said.
But Huffman countered that it’s not enough to address the supply without addressing the demand. The Coast Guard and other federal agencies don’t have the ability to patrol all U.S. waters, nor is there the capability of stopping all incoming shipments of illegal shark fins.
“It’s still fairly ubiquitous despite this nominal ban on the practice of shark finning,” Huffman said. He added that “there is a very lucrative market that continues fueling the practice.”
Huffman noted that sharks are top predators that reproduce slowly, and the removal of so many of them is hurting ocean ecosystems around the world.
While estimates vary, it is widely known that shark finning ships kill tens of millions of sharks annually. The World Conservation Union lists 20 shark species as endangered, with some species seeing their populations crash by over 90 percent since 1970.
Shark fins can bring in hundreds of dollars a pound. But sharks have routinely been thrown away as by-catch by many U.S. fishing fleets. This is partly because it is considered to lack the flavor of more popular types of fish and because, as a top predator, sharks carry high amounts of mercury. Mercury poisoning has been linked to numerous health conditions, from neurological problems to sterility. Shark steaks are available at Costco in Sacramento, for instance, but are displayed under a large sign warning about high mercury levels.
President Bill Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000. It banned the practice in U.S. waters, and also the importation of shark fins without the rest of the carcass.
These protections were strengthened on Jan. 4 when President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act. It closed some loopholes in the earlier legislation, such as provisions that allowed ships to carry fins separate from shark carcasses as long as certain proportions were maintained. The bill led to some unusual lobbying – a group of shark bite victims walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol, asking legislators to support protections for sharks.
Yee has been involved with several public spats with those he has seen as attacking Asian Americans and Asian culture. This has included radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh for making fun of Chinese Premier Hu Jintao and the Ladies Professional Golf Association for attempting to pass an English-only rule.
Last year, he testified at a Fish and Game Commission meeting against a ban on selling live frogs and turtles for food at animal markets. Animal rights groups and environmentalists have been pushing for a ban on the grounds that some of these animals are released into the wild worsens the state’s problems with invasive species and helps spread a fungus that has been killing amphibians around the world.
But Yee said the ban unfairly targeted small Asian-run businesses while doing nothing about pet stores that sold the same species. This was also argued in a letter he sent to the commission, cosigned by Fong and four other Asian American legislators. Last week, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, testified at another commission meeting against a ban. The commission decided to study the matter further and took no other action.