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California adopts shark fin ban

Fishermen transport a load of harvested shark fins aboard a boat near the southern Philippine island of Sulu. The trade thrives because of strong demand from restaurants around Asia that use them to make an expensive soup. (JAY DIRECTO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The California Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would ban the trade, sale and possession of shark fins, rejecting arguments that the conservation measure discriminates against Asians who consume shark’s fin soup.

If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the measure, California will be the fourth state in the U.S. to ban shark fin imports. Hawaii, Oregon and Washington already have done so.

Activists have begun pushing for shark fin bans across the U.S. in an effort to combat the global shark fin trade, which scientists estimate kills between 26 million and 73 million sharks a year.

“It’s a great day for sharks in California,” said Michael Sutton, vice president for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, whose group co-sponsored the legislation. “They may now actually survive for another 450 million years.”

As a compromise, the Senate adopted language that would ban imports as of Jan. 1 but allow those who possess shark fins to dispose of their stocks until June 30, 2013. They also included provisions that would allow fishermen who legally catch sharks to keep the fins for their personal use or donate them to taxidermists, research or medicinal institutions.

The initial vote count was 25 to 9, though the final vote could change in the next day since California senators can submit absentee votes in the hours after a vote. A majority of both Democrats and Republicans voted in favor of it.

While the legislation was co-sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance and enjoyed the support of several Chinese-American politicians, some Chinese-American state senators fought the measure.

Shark’s fin soup is popular in China as well as in communities with large Chinese populations, and can sell for up to $100 per bowl. While the U.S. only consumes a small portion of the world’s shark fins, California boasts two of the largest Asian food markets out of Asia and consumes far more shark products than other states.

State Sen. Ted Lieu said the bill “goes out of its way to be discriminatory,” adding, “They single out one cultural practice.”

Christopher Chin, the executive director of San Francisco-based Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education, wrote in an e-mail that policymakers were targeting a major cause of shark mortality rather than a specific ethnic group.

“Sharks are one of our oceans’ top predators, keeping the entire ecosystem in check, but shark populations have declined dramatically over the last few decades as a result of human greed and lack of understanding,” wrote Chin, who is Chinese-American.

Backers of the bill said they hoped Brown would sign the bill but expected the lobbying battle would continue in the coming month.

“It’s not over yet,” Sutton said.

The push for shark conservation has scored several political successes even as the number of unprovoked lethal shark strikes has risen this year. On Sunday, the 10th person was killed this year in a shark attack, in an strike off western Australia.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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