Our guest bloggers are Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress, and Rebecca Friendly, Special Assistant at CAP’s California Office.
In her book Demon Fish, Juliet Eilperin paints a vivid picture of how sharks continue to be objects of obsession worldwide and how this time-old vision could eventually contribute to their extinction. The demand for shark fin soup, a Chinese celebratory dish, has dramatically inflated the price for an ingredient that has no culinary or nutritional value. Shark fin soup can cost upwards of $80 a bowl in restaurants and has vitamin content less than that of a typical vegetable soup. The disproportionately high demand for shark fins has lead to irresponsible poaching, similar to practices used to exploit rhino horn and elephant ivory. More than 70 million sharks are harvested every year for their fins alone; a number equivalent to the population of California, Texas and Pennsylvania combined.
Earlier this year, President Obama signed federal legislation tightening a ban on shark finning in U.S. waters. The sale or trade of shark fins, however, is still legal in the majority of American states. California Assembly Bill 376 (AB 376) , introduced by State Assemblyman Paul Fong, a Chinese-American Californian, and supported in the legislature by Sen. Carol Liu, was overwhelmingly approved by the California state legislature with bipartisan support. The bill now awaits the signature of California Governor Jerry Brown, and would make it unlawful for any person to possess, sell, trade, or distribute a shark fin. If Governor Brown signs it, California will join neighboring Pacific states, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii in banning sale of shark fins.
Because shark fin soup is a customary entrée often served at celebrations and associated with prestige in the Chinese culture, some groups have expressed concern that AB 376 could be considered a discriminatory and offensive law that disregards the customs and preferences of California’s Chinese community. However, it is important to highlight that the picture is not so cut-and-dried. In fact, there has been an outpouring of support for AB 376 from the Chinese-American community itself.
Many prominent Chinese-Americans support the ban and seven legislators of Asian and Pacific Islands descent voted in favor of AB 376. Additionally, a poll conducted last February by the independent opinion research group Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates found that 76 percent of California voters of all ages, regions, political affiliations, and cultures support the ban. Further, the research, conducted for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, shows that 70 percent of California Chinese American voters support legislation to ban shark finning.
Shark fins can sell for up to 60 times the value of other shark meat products—as much as $600 per pound. This discrepancy has led fishermen in many countries to engage in a practice known as shark finning, whereby they cut off the fins of live sharks and toss the remains back into the ocean to die. This practice, illegal in the U.S., allows fishermen to fill their boats with fins, rather than bulky, relatively valueless bodies. In addition to being incredibly cruel, finning has put shark populations on the brink of extinction, with some species declining as much as 90 percent in recent years.
Sharks play a vital role in maintaining the harmony of ocean ecosystems, and their diminishing populations could have severe environmental repercussions. The proposed ban on the sale or trade of fins in California, which is home to the largest market for the shark fin trade outside of Asia, would drastically reduce demand and have an immediate positive impact on the shark population and a long-term effect on safeguarding ocean ecosystems.
There’s also an economic incentive to keep sharks swimming in the ocean rather than steaming in a soup bowl. Recent research from the Australian Institute for Marine Science has shown that sharks have a greater economic value alive than dead. In ocean tourist hubs such as the Bahamas, the Maldives, and Palau, the income garnered from tourist expenditures, values each shark between $30,000 and $2 million over its lifetime—far less than the value they would fetch on at seafood counters.
A proliferation of California community groups, conservationists, and celebrities such as Yao Ming, Richard Branson, and Lisa Ling have joined forces to urge Governor Brown to approve the legislation. Over thirty organizations have come out in support of the ban including the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance, Oceana, Humane Society International, the Asian Law Alliance, and the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education. Additionally, an online petition hosted by change.org presented Governor Brown with the signatures of over 25,000 Californians in support of the shark fin ban last month.
Governor Brown has not indicated whether he plans to sign or veto the legislation. He has until October 9 to make a decision. We urge the Governor to take a major step in protecting California’s ocean ecosystem and shark populations by signing AB 376.
Contributions made by Katie Wilczak.