Shark fin bill amended to push back ban start date for some sellers

on May 20, 2011

The controversial AB 376, a bill that would make possession and trade of shark fins illegal in California, was amended on Thursday. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, State Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), who along with Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced the bill in February, wants to “grandfather in” restaurants and distributors which are already selling shark fin products by pushing back the bill’s effective date for those sellers from 2012 to 2013.

Fong was not available to comment for the story, but a spokesperson from his office said that the amendment would only affect those already selling shark fins, giving them a year to get rid of their existing inventory. The ban would begin in 2012 for everyone else.

This amendment, however, is not even close to what some of the bill’s opponents want—a complete withdrawal of the bill.  “It doesn’t matter if the bill would be effective one year later, because it’s wrong,” said Taylor Chow, a spokesperson for the Oriental Food Association, whose members include a dozen importers in Oakland.

Chow is among a group of activists who have been voicing opposition to the shark fin ban, calling it an attack on the Chinese community. He said he supports the idea of shark conservation, but criminalizing the consumption of shark fins would mislead people into thinking that Chinese culture is against the environment.

During a meeting with Fong on April 20, Chow said, the group presented Fong with their own research on shark reservation. Among the materials collected by the opponents, a document called the “2010 Shark Finning Report to Congress” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is cited multiple times. Chow believes the report shows evidence that shark fins consumed in the U.S. can be—and are being—strictly regulated by the federal government.

According to the Shark Finning Prohibition Act (passed in 2000) and The Shark Conservation Act (passed last December), shark finning, a fishing practice that involves removing the fins from live sharks and throwing back the carcasses back to the sea, is illegal in U.S. waters. In addition, shark fins without corresponding carcasses can not land at any U.S. ports—a precaution to discourage the finning practice.

The NOAA’s Office for Law Enforcement is responsible for enforcing the Shark Finning Prohibition Act, but its report states that for most violations, only civil administrative actions, such as penalties or permit sanctions, can be taken, which makes it difficult to address finning violations of different severities.

Additionally, the current regulations cannot protect sharks outside of U.S waters. “Our law is toothless in international waters,” said Fong in an interview with Oakland North this March. He believes that it’s difficult to determine whether imported shark fins were legally captured. No fins, legally or illegally captured, could be sold if AB 367 were signed into law.

But opponents argue that the U.S. Secretary of Commerce is authorized to identify countries without regulatory programs that prohibit shark finning and then ask the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to stop importation from those identified countries.

A report by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic and the Pew Environment Group suggests that the U.S. ranks the eighth in the world in terms of shark fishing. The top seven countries are Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico and Pakistan.

According to the NOAA report, in 2009 only 21 metric tons of shark fins were imported to the U.S. Surprisingly, 77 metric tons were exported from the U.S., meaning that the majority of the exported fins were captured in U.S. waters. As a result, Chow believes that the shark fins consumed by the U.S. customers are mostly likely captured legally.

But environmentalists say that illegal shark finning remains a severe threat to the declining global shark population. More than 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. Although only three shark species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), many scientists believe that one third of all shark species are endangered. David McGuire, a field researcher of California Academy of Science, said in a previous interview with Oakland North that if the shark population continues to decline at the current rate, the creature would vanish from the Earth by the year 2050.

Moreover, McGuire and others say, because sharks are apex predators, the welfare of the marine ecosystem depends on their presence.

But Chow and other opponents of the ban feel that species sharks are being unfairly targeted by lawmakers. “Many species of salmon are listed as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ by NOAA. Why are we not proposing a bill to ban salmon first?” Chow said, adding that he struggles to understand why shark fins are singled out, while other parts of sharks, such as meat and livers, are not touched by the bill.

AB 376 passed the Assembly Committee on Appropriations in early April, but because of the amendment, it won’t see a vote in the Assembly until at least next week.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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