Take shark fins off the menu

The loss of a cultural tradition is regrettable, but the loss of a species is tragic and the upset of the oceans’ environmental balance could be catastrophic. That’s why a California bill banning the possession and sale of shark fins should be pulled out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee suspense file Thursday and sent to the Senate floor, where it should be passed.

Shark populations are declining, and close to a third of shark species are in danger of extinction. Contributing to this decline is the practice of shark finning, in which large-scale fishing operations cut off the valuable fins, used for the Chinese delicacy shark-fin soup, and throw the rest of the shark back into the ocean to die. At one time, the expensive soup was out of the reach of all but the wealthiest Chinese families, but the emergence of the Chinese middle class increased demand to the point where an estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year solely for their fins.

Some Chinese Americans vehemently oppose the bill, saying it would end the ages-old tradition of serving shark-fin soup at weddings. A bowl of the soup is a status symbol that costs about $100. Others wholeheartedly support the bill -- one of the sponsors is Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale), who is of Chinese descent -- pointing out that there are many ways to honor wedding guests with prestigious treats.

Contrary to opponents’ claims, the bill is not discriminatory. Tradition deserves respect, but sometimes custom must give way to environmental imperative, in this case by allowing shark populations to return to healthy levels. Whale meat was historically consumed in Japan, but it is illegal to sell the meat in this country. In Hong Kong, a major trading center for shark fins, a survey earlier this year found that only about 20% of residents felt it would be unacceptable to omit the soup from wedding receptions.


As top predators in the ocean, sharks help maintain the balance of the marine ecosystem. They produce relatively few pups and are slow to mature; their populations do not rebound quickly. The practice of finning already is illegal in waters of the United States, the European Union and many other countries, but is common in international waters. Obviously, a state ban wouldn’t stop all shark finning, but it would make a significant difference. Outside of China, California is the biggest market in the world for shark fins.

AB 376 is modeled on a Hawaii ban that became law last year; Oregon and Washington passed bans earlier this year. California’s legislative leaders, long in the vanguard of promoting marine environmentalism, should not lose out on this opportunity to protect the oceans.