The Debate Over Shark Fins in California
There is a rebellion of sorts happening in California. On August 15th, an important piece of environmental legislation is due to be heard before the California State Senate committee on Appropriations that has been building controversy since passing the State Assembly in May. The rebellion is centered not on the merits of the bill itself, but on the perceived inconsistency between the politics of the legislation and the will of the general public.
Assembly Bill AB 376 proposes a ban on the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins in the State of California. Similar legislation was passed in 2010 in the state of Hawaii, and just recently this year in the states Washington and Oregon in addition to the Pacific island territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI). Ocean conservation organizations have turned to legislative actions such as AB 376 in an urgent fight to end the international trade in shark fins before shark populations are driven literally to extinction.
According to the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group, 1/3 of the world’s open ocean, or “pelagic” shark species are now threatened with extinction. Some species of shark populations have been fished to less than 10% of their original populations in just the last 20 years, an alarming number from which some researchers say sharks may not be able to recover. Over 100 million sharks are drawn from the oceans every year, with 73 million being taken for their fins alone, often through the wasteful and cruel practice known as “finning” where sharks are brought aboard fishing boats, their fins cut off, and the sharks thrown back into the ocean often still alive where they drown or bleed to death. Experts all agree that the overwhelming cause for the decline in shark populations is this demand for fins, which are used in the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup.
To many, the elimination of the sale and trade of a product that has led to the near extinction of a species that has existed for over 400 million years should be the proverbial “no brainer”. Indeed, AB 376 passed through the State Assembly with overwhelming support, receiving a final vote of 65 – 8 to pass the legislation on to the Senate for review and action. However, since arriving in the Senate the bill has experienced a considerable amount of resistance from opposition led by Senators Leland Yee (D – San Francisco) and Ted Lieu (D – Redondo Beach). Senators Yee and Lieu argue that the bill would unfairly affect Chinese Americans in California, who are the majority consumers of shark fin soup. It is this perceived cultural impact that has some Senators uneasy about lending their full support to the bill.
Further complicating the mix, after AB 376 was passed through the Assembly, opposition entities (restaurateurs and importers/exporters) hired two of the most powerful lobby organizations in Sacramento. These lobby organizations have been hard at work trying to convince Senators that AB 376 is unfair and unnecessary, echoing the arguments made by Senators Yee and Lieu. But they have gone further by suggesting shark populations are not in danger at all, or that the shark fin demand in California could somehow be satisfied by only using “home-grown” fins, suggestions that the science and conservation community have flatly rejected. Lieu has asked for amendments to the bill which would address these points, but conservation organizations are concerned that these amendments would only lead to gaping loopholes, as happened with attempted ivory restrictions before entire bans on the product were enacted. In fact, conservation groups use the ivory comparison often when discussing the fin trade with those unfamiliar with the issue.
While it is true that the main consumers of shark fin soup are Chinese American, polls have shown that as many as 70% of California Chinese Americans support the ban on shark fins. In addition, many high profile Asian community organizations have endorsed AB 376 including the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance, the Taiwanese Junior Chambers of Commerce of North America, and the Taiwanese American Citizens League. And therein lies the rebellion which is frustrating conservation organizations. They ask that if 70% of the purported affected community actually supports the ban, why are politicians still fighting the measure? Some believe that the answer lies in the involvement of the lobby organizations. Rebellions are often fueled by such perceptions, especially considering the fact that the high level of public support for AB 376 crosses political party, cultural, and economic demographics.
In the end, the group that will be most affected by the status of shark populations are those who depend on the oceans for their very lives. Research has shown conclusively that the removal of apex predators from any ecosystem results in catastrophic effects in the balance of that system. Sharks are no exception to this rule. A study in the collapse of a major scallop fishery in the Atlantic Ocean found that the root cause for the problem was the over fishing of sharks in the area. The depletion of sharks resulted in overpopulation of rays, which then decimated the scallops in the fishery. And if the predictions prove out and shark populations do completely die off, the shark fin industry will suffer the same fate, having destroyed the very source of its existence.
So on August 15th, when AB 376 goes to the Senate Committee on Appropriations, many Californians will be watching the debate closely. For some the interest will not only be in the fate of the bill itself, but an observation in political action and accountability.
Below is the link to more info and office # of state senators, please call each of them to let them know you want them to support AB 376: