State Assemblymembers Paul Fong and Jared Huffman introduced a bill to the legislature last Friday that would ban the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins in California.
The practice of shark finning — catching live sharks, cutting their fins off and leaving the wounded animals to die — is illegal under federal statute, but the proposed state law would further curtail the practice. Proponents of the bill say helping to reinforce the weakly enforced federal ban will help to prevent thousands, if not millions, of sharks from being maimed and killed each year.
Opponents of the legislation like State Senator Leland Yee say the ban would be culturally insensitive toward Chinese populations that have prized shark fin soup as a delicacy since the Han Dynasty. Additionally, those against the bill say, California’s demand for shark fins — second only to China — creates market prices between $300 and $500 per pound of fins that create jobs for a significant number of fishermen.
According to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international nonprofit marine wildlife conservation organization established in 1977, sharks are killed cruelly for little reason, as they provide little in the way of food and resource value. Their website says that fins can be made into soup, teeth can be used for jewelry, skin can form leather for wallets and belts and oil from the liver can be used — but overall most of a shark is wasted once caught.
Kevin Sullivan, a volunteer for several shark conservation organizations including Iemanya Oceanica and Shark Savers, said an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year by fishing efforts.
“73 million sharks per year are killed and harvested for the fins alone,” Sullivan said.
Such wanton destruction of a species, Sullivan said, will have global consequences.
“We know from studies that if you lose the shark population the rest of the ecosystem is going to take a hit. If you lose an apex predator many other fish will die.”
Despite the economic impact on commercial fishermen, Sullivan said the bill will protect dwindling shark populations from disappearing altogether.
“Local fishermen have been hit by the economy and we do not want their livelihood destroyed, but we can not allow the sale of fins to continue,” Sullivan said. “If sharks could be harvested sustainably there would not be a problem, but because sharks mature late in life and have so few young, they cannot reproduce fast enough. The [International Union for Conservation of Nature] currently lists up to 13 sharks as being up to 90 percent depleted and this has occurred over the last 20 years.”
Jonathan Gonzalez, volunteer for local marine conservancy organizations, said federal law implemented over a decade ago that banned shark finning drastically constrained the shark fin fishing industry, so a new ban would not have a big effect on commercial fishing in the state.
“Local fishermen have not relied on shark fins for a significant amount of income since Bill Clinton’s anti shark finning law,” Gonzalez said. “Since then the industry has fizzled out, effectively saving a lot of sharks.”
According to Gonzalez, the local sale of shark fins is detrimental to fishermen because they are at a disadvantage to foreign markets not subject to the same anti-finning laws. In some foreign waters, authorities aren’t constrained by sanctions on species near the brink of extinction.
“I think the sale of shark fins undermines the local fishermen because it makes for an uneven playing field,” Gonzalez said. “Also, testing has revealed that some of the shark fins are from whale sharks and white sharks, which are critically endangered.”
Gonzalez said the focus of the bill is to sustain shark populations, despite any minor consequences it has on the fishing industry.
“I do consider myself a shark conservationist, but in more of a level-headed way; I am more about sustainability,” Gonzalez said. “I am not against shark fisherman and I am definitely for local fishermen.”