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California shark fin ban advances

August 25, 2011 | 12:51 pm

Sharkfins This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

A push to outlaw shark fins, the main ingredient in a traditional Chinese soup, cleared a key obstacle Thursday when it passed a state Senate committee.

The bill, which would ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins in the state, has been championed by conservation groups as a way to curb their harvest, a practice that has contributed to the sharp decline of shark populations worldwide.

But the measure has divided California’s Chinese American community. For centuries the gelatinous soup prepared with dried shark fins has been served as a pricey Chinese delicacy, and opponents say banning it would discriminate against a cultural tradition.

The bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 5-2 vote and now moves to the Senate floor, where a vote is expected within the next few weeks.

The California State Assembly passed the ban in May, 65 to 8, but it ran into obstacles in the upper house.

Chinese American restaurateurs and traders have lobbied against the ban and are being backed by several Chinese American lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who voted against the measure Thursday. Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has called it "an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine."

On the other side are conservationists, who are supported by some Chinese American lawmakers, chefs and celebrities, including basketball star Yao Ming. Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins and scientists say the fin trade threatens to disrupt ocean ecosystems. To harvest the fins, fishermen cut them off live sharks and dump them back in the water to die.

Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale), a sponsor of the bill, was born in China and grew up eating shark fin soup but turned against it several years ago after watching a film about how the fin trade was wiping out shark populations.

“At this rate they're going to be extinct in our lifetime,” Fong said in an interview. “And without the top predator, our ocean's ecosystem goes into a huge imbalance and falls like a house of cards.”

“I'm proud of my Chinese roots, and our culture will live and survive without shark's fin,” he added.

Similar legislation has been signed in Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. President Obama signed federal legislation tightening a ban on shark finning in U.S. waters this year.

If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the California law would go into effect in 2013.

For the record, 2:45 p.m. Aug. 25: A previous version of this post misattributed a quote to Sen. Ted Lieu. It is Sen. Leland Yee who has called the ban "an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine."

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--Tony Barboza

Photo: Shark fins drying on a boat in Micronesia. The California Senate has moved forward to ban sale, trade and possession of the culinary delicacy. Credit: Associated Press

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