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Shark fin soup one step closer to being banned

Photo: Glass containers filled with shark fins are displayed at a store in San Francisco's Chinatown. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images The days of being able to order shark fin soup at California restaurants appear to be numbered.

The state Senate on Tuesday voted 25 to 9 to ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fin, a key ingredient in the traditional Chinese soup, sending the bill to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

The measure, championed by conservation groups as a way to curb the shark fin harvest, a practice that has contributed to the sharp decline of shark numbers worldwide, 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 of the bill say banning the ingredient would discriminate against a cultural tradition.

Chinese American restaurateurs and traders have lobbied against the bill and are being backed by several Chinese American lawmakers.

Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has called it "an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine." But other Chinese American legislators, chefs and celebrities, including basketball star Yao Ming, have backed conservationists.

Lawmakers on Tuesday also approved a second bill adding several key provisions. Among them: creating an exemption allowing taxidermists to possess shark fins, letting licensed fishermen donate shark fins to research institutions and giving restaurants longer to use up their stocks of the ingredient.

“Today is a landmark day for shark conservation around the globe, as we are one step away from a sweeping West Coast ban on the trade of shark fins,” said Susan Murray, senior Pacific director for the conservation group Oceana.

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.

Brown has not indicated publicly whether he intends to sign the bill.

The state Assembly passed the bill in May on a 65-8 vote, but the legislation ran into Senate opposition, including proposed amendments to allow the sale of fins from some shark species that can be legally caught in California.

But none of those amendments, which conservation groups worried would make the law ineffective and difficult to enforce, were approved.

Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins, and scientists say the fin trade threatens to disrupt ocean ecosystems. Fishermen cut the fins off live sharks, which they dump 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 last month. “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. If signed by the governor, the California law would go into effect by mid-2013.

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-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Glass containers filled with shark fins are displayed at a store in San Francisco's Chinatown. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

 
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