Shark fight in California

A proposed shark-fin ban in California has provoked anger in the Chinese American community, putting its backers under pressure to prove their case. John Hannon reports.

On March 22, local politicians introduced a bill into California’s state legislature with the aim of outlawing the possession and trade of shark fin throughout the state. The bill, which follows in the wake of similar laws passed in Hawaii and other US territories in the Pacific Ocean, aims to limit declines in shark populations around the world by eliminating the largest shark-fin market outside of Asia.

Though the bill has enthusiastic supporters in the legislature and Californian civil society, it has also generated serious opposition. Shark fin is used exclusively in Chinese cuisine, and members of California’s Chinese-American community have complained that the bill targets their heritage. State Senator Leland Yee, a Chinese-American politician from San Francisco, reacted to the bill’s announcement with a statement calling it “the wrong approach and an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine”.

The bill has already passed through two preliminary votes in the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house. If a majority approves the bill in an open vote before June 3, the bill will pass to the state Senate, the upper house, which will in turn have three months to approve it. The bill’s authors, Assemblymen Paul Fong and Jared Huffman, now have to convince the legislature that data on shark declines are conclusive, and that a ban on fins in California will relieve the worldwide shark crisis. As with any natural resource issue, both these assertions rest on complex science and demand careful attention.

The claim that shark populations are in dramatic global decline dredges up a scientific controversy from the last decade. “The bottom line is that we’re seeing declines in a large number of these top predators,” Dr Suzy Kohin, head of shark research at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center – a research facility of the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – told chinadialogue. But, she added, scientists have never fully agreed on the magnitude of those declines.

Scientists often rely on fishing records to estimate abundance for oceanic species, and for most of the industrial era few fishermen collected shark data. Shark meat is hard to market to inland consumers because it goes rancid easily, and so before the advent of mainland China’s demand for shark fin, commercial fishermen disregarded and discarded whatever sharks they caught. Even the number harvested today is hard to estimate, thanks to a casual attitude towards sharks still widespread in the fishing industry. The often-mentioned figure of 73 million derives from a careful patchwork of data sets, but scientists cannot generate robust estimates of declines over time for most species.

During the last decade, poor data did not prevent a group of marine scientists led by Ramsey Myers and Boris Worm from including sharks in a series of pessimistic studies on fish declines. Myers and Worm’s papers on sharks concluded that certain species had declined precipitously in American waters – hammerhead sharks by as much as 90% – since 1986. The studies culminated in a 2006 paper published in the journal Science, which suggested that the collapse of all commercially-harvested fish populations by 2048 was a distinct possibility.

Following criticism of Myers and Worm’s use of widely-dismissed data, and after Myers’ death in 2008, fisheries scientists have focused on the more gradual work of directed population assessments. These efforts, coordinated by international fishery management offices such as the Central and Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council (CWPFC), have recruited both Chinese and Japanese fishery bureaus to assist in research, as well as to attempt to limit finning within their jurisdictions.

To date, CWPFC studies have produced at least one surprising result. A 2009 study based on Japanese fishing data and life-cycle modeling concluded that blue sharks in the North Pacific are currently fished at levels around maximum sustainable yield. But Craig Hederer of NMFS explained that the ongoing assessments of species in other areas of the Pacific will likely produce more sobering figures over the next few years, especially for sharks outside US jurisdictions.

Quantifying shark declines is one problem; limiting them is another. The United States and the European Union prohibit finning in their own jurisdictions, but cannot regulate international waters. A diffuse network of more than 90 countries around the world supplies shark fins; and so many trade practices frustrate monitoring that it sometimes seems that suppliers already treat fins as contraband. Shipments are often mislabelled in an attempt to confuse local authorities; and sometimes local authorities themselves seem to encourage confusion, as in the case of Chinese regulations, which classify fins as frozen shark meat.

Language also muddies the waters. Chinese market appellations for shark fin do not correspond to species; as a 2006 study noted, appellations mostly refer to the quality of the fin rays produced in soup. Once fins are processed and sorted by name, it is nearly impossible to determine the species of origin without DNA analysis. And if the fin belongs to a species with a wide distribution, then its region of origin remains unknowable.

The California bill, rather than trying to regulate fin supply, assumes that the international market for fins is inherently unmanageable. The bill’s authors called on several conservation experts to explain this rationale to the Assembly’s environmental affairs committee on March 22. Peter Knights, who runs the wildlife-advocacy group Wildaid, compared the shark-fin trade today with the ivory trade before 1990, a subject he spent many years researching. Knights testified that when only limited restrictions were in place, traders were able to exploit available loopholes to sell poached ivory. Only once nations party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed to an outright ban on the ivory trade, which effectively eliminated market demand, did elephant populations stabilise.           

Mike Sutton, who represented the Monterrey Bay Aquarium at the March 22 hearing, explained to the Assembly that closing the market for shark fin in California would send “a powerful message to fisheries around the world”. Knights agreed, noting that Ding Liguo, a member of China’s National People’s Congress, had proposed a ban on shark fin in mainland China after news of the California bill reached the country.

The bill’s sponsors acknowledge that a fin ban in California is only an intermediate step. Sutton voiced hopes that the bill might generate enough attention to lead to a national ban in the United States, and Knights believes the “silver bullet” for shark conservation will be a ban in China.

California’s Chinese-American community is not handing over its fins without a fight, however. Shark-fin soup has been consumed in California for decades; a researcher at the California Academy of Sciences told chinadialogue that demand for fins of the soupfin shark nearly wiped out the population on the Californian coast decades before other sharks came under pressure. When the state Assembly considered the bill’s cost projections on April 6, dozens of Chinese-Americans travelled to the state capital to protest the measure.

California’s politicians are sensitive to the Chinese-American community’s alarm. San Francisco’s mayor and three candidates for the city’s upcoming mayoral election are themselves Chinese-American, and they have all gone to considerable lengths to hedge their positions on the bill. And with California’s annual budget in shambles, legislators are shying from any bill that will hurt local business and create enforcement costs. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, from southern California, pleaded with Paul Fong on April 6 to devise an alternative that “doesn’t create a massive cost to California, and doesn’t wipe out some businesses that we desperately need.”

By refusing to soften the bill, Fong and Huffman have forced a hard choice onto California’s politicians. They will now have to decide between a noble gesture that may cost them their jobs and handing the fate of sharks back to fishery management offices for slow, methodical investigation. Science may not have fully defined the crisis in the oceans yet, but Fong and Huffman have defined the political problem clearly enough.

Editor’s update: Since this article was written, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium has released the results of a public opinion poll indicating that 76% of all registered voters in California, and 70% of the state’s Chinese-American voters, support the shark-fin ban. While only about half of the total Chinese-American population in California is registered to vote, it appears that more politicians will be able to express support of the bill in coming months without fear of voter backlash.


John Hannon is a California-based freelance journalist and an intern for the Asia Society Northern California.

Homepage image from Angelo Leung

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