A potential ban on the sale of shark fins has been swimming the corridors of Sacramento, where it will surface Aug. 15 before a committee including Sen. Ted Lieu, who bobs in the middle waters between businesses that want to supply the fanciers of shark fin soup, and activists backing a ban.
Proponents of a ban say most shark killing is done just for “finning,” in which the fins and tails are sliced off before the remainder of the fish, often still alive, is thrown back into the ocean.
Lieu maintains that the ban approaching the Senate Appropriations Committee, of which he is a member, unintentionally discriminates against a Chinese-American population that eats shark fin soup, because it bans the fins while continuing to allow sharks to be killed for meat and nutritional supplements.
Lieu said the key is to ensure that fins are taken only when the rest of the shark is being used, or to ban shark sales entirely – for the meat and supplement users as well as the fin-soup eaters.
A leading shark activist in the fight believes Lieu, D-Torrance, is trying to save his fin and let it be eaten too. She says obstacles to finning enforcement make it impossible to ensure that any given fin came from a shark that was used for other purposes as well, and the only way to ban finning is to ban the sale and consumption of the fins.
The debate was launched when Assemblyman Paul Fong proposed the California Shark Protection Act, which would make it illegal to possess, sell, trade, or distribute shark fin.
“Shark finning is unhealthy in all regards,” Fong said. “It’s unhealthy to fin the sharks because it’s decimating their populations, it’s unhealthy to eat shark fins because of the high mercury content, and it’s unhealthy for the oceans’ ecosystem because once the apex predator disappears, the ocean will fall like a house of cards.”
Ban proponents’ quote scientists’ studies showing that between 26 million and 73 million sharks are killed every year for their fins, which can cost 100 times more than shark meat.
Finning already is banned under federal law and state laws inOregon,WashingtonandHawaii, but proponents of Fong’s bill say the fins make their way toCaliforniastore shelves and restaurant tables just the same.
Fong, who has eaten fin soup, said the practice must go the way of others that have been outgrown by the Chinese or Chinese-American cultures.
“Just like it was unhealthy to bind women’s feet, this practice needs to end,” he said.
Fong has drawn support from the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton, the California Academy of Sciences, the Natural Resources Defense Council, California Coastkeeper Alliance, Ocean Conservancy and Heal the Bay.
“I agree with the goal of the author [of the bill], and the supporters, which is to reduce the decline in the shark population in some places in the world. You can do that by banning the sale and consumption of sharks, but that is not what this bill does,” Lieu said.
If sharks can be turned into wallets, steaks and liver oil, it should not be illegal to turn them into fin soup, he said.
“It’s more a matter of fairness,” he said. The finning bill, as written, would have a “disparate impact” on consumers of one part of the shark.
If salmon protection was the goal, we would not ban caviar only, he said, comparing the expensive eggs to the fins of sharks.
“We could ban the sale and consumption of sharks,” he said. “But if we cross a line and let someone eat a shark steak inBeverly Hills, my view is, it is unfair to say someone else can’t eat shark fin soup inMonterey Park.”
He said discrimination against primarily Chinese-American fin consumers is “definitely not [Fong’s] intent, but the effect of the bill does that.”
Lieu said he does not eat shark fin soup, which is an expensive delicacy sometimes served at weddings.
Lieu has proposed amending Fong’s bill to allow continued shark fin consumption, while ensuring that the fins come only from sharks killed for other purposes as well.
Under Lieu’s amendments, fins could come from sharks taken in state and federal waters in compliance with the federal finning ban. Sharks taken in federal waters would require a landing receipt listing the species and weight of the shark, the name of the fishing boat and its owner, and the date the shark was landed.
Fins could come from international waters as well, if they are accompanied by an affidavit by the importer, stating the shark was landed in a sustainable fishery as certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Violations would be punishable by a $10,000 fine per fin.
Lieu said another way to change the Fong bill could be to ban any products from sharks caught in international waters.
“We could institute severe penalties for selling fins if they do not come from U.S. or California waters,” he said. “We could put the onus on the private sector to show they have complied with the law.”
“I agree that the practice of finning – just taking the fin and not the rest of the shark, is not a good practice, but California and U.S. fishermen don’t do that. They use the whole shark,” Lieu said.
Lieu and the bill’s supporters also offer differing views of the degree of danger facing the shark species that are vulnerable to finning, as scientists worldwide struggle to track shark populations.
“Sharks are not on the U.S. endangered species list,” Lieu said.
“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has five categories [including threatened, endangered, and of concern,] and blue fin tuna are far more endangered than sharks are, but no movement has been made to ban blue fin tuna,” he said.
Wild salmon are higher on the NOAA list as well, Lieu said, “but imagine allowing salmon but no lox.”
On the other hand, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, boasting more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations, has found that nearly one third of open-ocean sharks are threatened with extinction.
The IUCN has classified great hammerhead and scalloped hammerhead sharks as globally endangered, and the smooth hammerhead, great white, basking and oceanic whitetip sharks as globally vulnerable to extinction, along with two species of makos and three of threshers.
The organization has classified the porbeagle shark as globally vulnerable, and the blue shark, “the world’s most abundant and heavily fished open-ocean shark,” as near threatened.
Fong said shark populations have decreased dramatically in recent years, with some species facing extinction.
Sue Chen, a director of the organizations Reef Check and Shark Savers, said some species of sharks could become extinct within 30 years. She said the sharks that suffer the most finning are “apex predators” important to the ocean ecosystem – “‘Jaws,’ the ones with teeth.”
“Those species are the ones that are being fished to near extinction,” she said, with some populations declining more than 90 percent over the past couple of decades, in large part because of rising affluence in China, where fin soup is eaten.
Chen said shark finning is the “main reason” people kill sharks, and that U.S. fin consumption can only be stopped by a fin ban.
“We already know that laws and enforcement of shark finning is not working,” she said. “The only solution is to pass laws that eliminate the market.”
About 85 percent of U.S. dried shark fin imports come in through California, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Turning to Lieu’s suggestion of a sweeping ban on all shark products, Chen said she did not know if such legislation would be approved, if it was proposed. She urged lawmakers to act on the finning bill, which is before the Legislature now.
“Ted’s position sounds good, but the fact is that his amendments [to the Fong bill] would water down the bill, and that wouldn’t work,” Chen said.
Most sharks are killed in international waters, “and it is impossible to enforce in international waters. There are federal laws than ban shark finning, but that has done nothing to end the killing of sharks,” Chen said. “Shark fins would still come in through loopholes.”
Chen, a Taiwanese-American who is CEO of Nova Medical Products in Carson, dismissed Lieu’s position that a finning ban would have a disparate impact on Chinese-Americans.”
The word “impact,” she said, should be used for more dire matters such as unemployment, or lack of education or clean water.
“You can’t use the word impact when you talk about removing a luxury consumer item,” she said. “It isn’t an impact on me if I can’t get my favorite Gucci item in purple.”
Chen said she ate shark fin soup “many times” when she was young. She said the dish is served at special occasions and is used “to show wealth and status.”
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