Sharks star in more than scary movies. Their predatory existence is vital to keeping the oceans' ecosystem and fisheries in balance; their plummeting numbers are cause for deep concern. There have been collapses of some species, such as the great hammerhead in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, whose numbers are down by 89%. Overall, close to a third of shark species are considered to be in danger of extinction.
A major contributor to this decline is the practice of shark-finning, in which large-scale fishing operations cut the valuable fins off sharks for use in the Chinese delicacy shark-fin soup, then throw the sharks back into the ocean to die. Although precise counts are hard to come by, it's estimated that up to 70 million sharks are killed each year through finning. Recent efforts to reduce finning have been largely ineffective, which is why a proposed ban in California on the sale or possession of shark fins is a good idea.
Because they are a luxury item — a bowl of soup can cost about $100 — the market for shark fins was small until about a decade ago. The emerging middle class in China created new demand for the soup, which is also popular among Chinese Americans.
Finning is illegal in the waters of the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia and several other countries, but it is still common in international waters. In addition, it is illegal for U.S. fishing boats to dock with shark fins on board unless they are attached to the carcass. But this doesn't affect imported shark fins, and a state ban on imports would be legally shaky and, as a practical matter, nearly unenforceable.
Modeled after a Hawaiian law adopted last year, AB 376, sponsored by Assembly members Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), would ban the possession or sale of shark fins except by fishermen with specified licenses. Though not a global solution — California is by no means the hot spot of shark-fin consumption — the bill would set an example for curbing an environmentally unacceptable practice by curtailing demand.
Many of the state's Chinese Americans will undoubtedly and understandably object — Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) already has come out in opposition. But just as it is illegal to sell whale meat in this country despite a history of such consumption in Japan, environmental imperatives outweigh cultural traditions.