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One of the Worst Meals You Can Possibly Eat Has Just Been Banned in California

California's Governor Jerry Brown just signed a law that may prevent the slaughter of millions of one of the most important species.
 
 
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It's a particularly choppy morning here in the Central Pacific, and everyone aboard Greenpeace's flagship, Esperanza, is on high alert. We are here to document, expose, and take action against illegal and unsustainable fishing practices, and only an hour ago, we encountered a Korean longline vessel, Oryong 335, that has refused to let us board their ship and is steaming away from us. It's too late for them to hide their secret, though: Even from half a mile off, one can see dozens of shark fins hung to dry in the tropical sun.

Out here in the high seas, it's only too obvious that the barbaric and wasteful practice of shark finning is alive and well. Current estimates on how many sharks are killed every year for their fins vary widely, but the average figure is somewhere around 50 million. Given this level of carnage, it's no wonder that many shark populations around the world are in severe decline. As I've written before, we need sharks in our oceans. Without sharks and other top-level carnivores to keep populations of sub-predators in check, we run the risk of losing productive and well-balanced marine ecosystems to trophic collapse.

While most of these shark fins are destined for markets in Hong Kong, Shanghai and other East Asian population centers, they are common in the US as well -- especially in high-end Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities with large Chinese populations. Thankfully, California has just banned the shark fin trade: a legislative coup that will have massive impacts on both our oceans and the finning industry overall.

California's AB 376 (aka the California shark fin ban), just signed on October 7 by Governor Brown, is more than just a law -- it's a revolution.

Unlike many other struggles against finning, AB 376 largely neutralizes the cultural defense.

A common rebuttal to AB 376 is that it is culturally imperialistic because banning the trade of shark fins discriminates against Chinese culture and tradition. While I personally believe that this argument is founded on false logic, it is often whipped out to quell grumblings about the shark fin trade. This time, however, the argument rings even more hollow than it has before: not only does California have the largest Chinese population of any US state, but the leading champion of the bill is himself a Chinese-American. Assemblymember Paul Fong, who represents California's 22nd District (that's the Mountain View/Cupertino area) started his crusade to save sharks after watching a grisly video showcasing the practice. Fong teamed up with Assemblymember Jared Huffman (who represents the 6th District, Marin and southern Sonoma counties) in an effort to put a stop to the fin trade in California. With support from key shark advocates like David McGuire, as well as from environmental and scientific organizations including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Shark Savers, and NRDC, Fong took the fight to Sacramento and won.

One may ask if this pro-shark coalition would have had as much success had it not been captained by someone of Chinese heritage. The pseudo-cultural argument flung back at those who would protect our oceans may have been significantly more powerful had the makeshift fin lobby been able play its race card without Fong trumping it.

Passing the State House and Senate Against Well-Funded Opposition

The passage of AB 376 marks the first time a shark fin ban has been enacted despite the organized resistance of an established bloc. Similar prohibitions are already in effect in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Guam, and the Marianas, but the coalition that formed in opposition to the Californian shark fin ban was far more organized and well-funded than any that came before it.

Led by San Francisco mayoral candidate Leland Yee, the opposition to AB 376 rallied significant resources in attempt to block the bill. (As an aside, the idea that an individual can run for mayor of San Francisco on what is essentially an anti-green platform is both shocking and disheartening in the extreme.) The anti-AB 376 coalition hosted events, generated media messaging, and carted busloads of people to Sacramento to object to the ban. Yee even passed out samples of shark fin soup to journalists. Still, in spite of a well-funded and organized attempt to discredit and derail this critical piece of legislation, the people of the Golden State overcame this obstructionism and took a major step toward protecting sharks and the future of our planet.

And regarding Yee's ongoing mayoral campaign: well, you can bet us greenies in San Francisco will remember his actions when we visit the polls in November.

Blocking the Primary Point-of-entry in the U.S. Market

One important feature of AB 376 is that it prevents vessels from off-loading shark fins in California ports. When coupled with similar legislation already in effect in Oregon and Washington, AB 376 effectively locks the fin trade out of North America, as there is simply no acceptable legal landing point. Vessels will be forced to either land shark fins in Canada or Mexico (and thus merchants will need to pay extra duties upon shipping it by land back into the United States) or on our Atlantic coast, which poses a massive challenge given that most shark finning is perpetrated in the Pacific.

From a purely logistical perspective, AB 376 has erected a barrier between the international fin trade and the United States market that will not be easily overcome. In fact, the added costs incurred by traders looking to leap this obstacle are likely to be so substantial that dealing in the fin business in the United States will become a much less lucrative proposition.

Major Financial Hit to the Industry

While the recent prohibitions of the shark fin trade in other states and US territories were certainly crucial in building global momentum (opposition to shark finning is igniting all over the world now, including Richard Branson and Yao Ming's efforts in China) they did not carry any serious weight in terms of actual market share. These pieces of legislation were vital, to be sure, but from a global perspective they were largely symbolic.

This is not the case with the Californian ban. Not only is California one of the world's largest shark fin markets outside of Asia, but it also represents 85 percent of the entire North American shark fin trade. Shutting down the fin business in California is tantamount to ripping an entire continent out of the finners' grasp... or perhaps slicing a large protruding chunk off of the global enterprise, if the irony isn't too unappealing.

Some would rightly wonder if the fin trade will simply pack up and head inland. Sure, that's a risk in the short term, but the tsunami spawned by this earth-shaking piece of legislation will roll east soon enough. We already see proposed bans surfacing in other North American cities: Toronto is a particularly important case that seems to be proceeding toward a similar outcome. Make no mistake -- this is the vanguard of something massive, indicative of a shift in social consciousness and a new way of looking at sharks and at our oceans overall.

Casson Trenor is senior markets campaigner with Greenpeace USA, where he spearheads efforts to hold restaurants and supermarkets accountable for their seafood sustainability practices and to help educate the public about the global fisheries crisis. He is the author of Sustainable Sushi.
 
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