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Legislation To Ban Sale, Possession of Shark Fins In California

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Legislation introduced in Sacramento would ensure that California ceases to be both a major supplier and consumer of shark fins through a ban on the possession, sale, trade, and distribution of fins. Hawaii has passed a similar ban. Oregon and Washington are also considering bans. Every year people kill up to 73 million sharks for shark fin soup, a practice considered wasteful and unsustainable. Some scientists say many shark populations have collapsed worldwide due to overfishing. We discuss the new legislation, the traditional Chinese shark fin soup and the status and importance of shark populations in the oceans.

Legislation introduced in Sacramento would ensure that California ceases to be both a major supplier and consumer of shark fins through a ban on the possession, sale, trade, and distribution of fins. Hawaii has passed a similar ban. Oregon and Washington are also considering bans. Every year people kill up to 73 million sharks for shark fin soup, a practice considered wasteful and unsustainable. Some scientists say many shark populations have collapsed worldwide due to overfishing. We discuss the new legislation, the traditional Chinese shark fin soup and the status and importance of shark populations in the oceans.

Guests

Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), representative of the 22nd Assembly District

Judy Ki , retired educator, co-chair of the Asian Pacific Americans Ocean Harmony Alliance (APAOHA). She retired from teaching middle school Science in 2007

Dan Cartamil, post-doctoral researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He's studied sharks and rays in Bahamas, Hawaii, and California

Mike Coots, photographer from Kauai. Mike was attacked by a shark in 1997 and lost his right leg. He is still surfing and has a career in photography. Recently, Mike traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with congress to support a ban on shark finning in U.S. waters

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asian cultures, much like caviar is in the west. And it's almost as pricey. Environmentalists say that finning of sharks for that soup and other recipes is both cruel and threatening to the health of the ocean. It's estimated that over 70 million sharks are slaughtered for their fins each year. California is both a major supplier and consumer of shark fin products. New legislation has been introduced in Sacramento to outlaw the sale of shark fins. If passed, California would join Hawaii in banning the practice. But some Asian community leaders say their culture and heritage are being unfairly targeted by the proposed ban. We begin our conversation about the practice of shark finning with my first guest, California state assemblyman Paul Fong. He's cosponsor of a bill to ban the position, sale, and distribution of shark fins. And good morning assemblyman Fong.

FONG: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: First for our audience, can you describe the practice of shark finning?

FONG: Well, it's when a shark is caught, usually by a bicatch by fisherman, and they remove the fin, and throw the carcass back into the water so the shark dies, basically.

CAVANAUGH: And as I said, there are estimates that 70 million sharks are treat indeed this manner. Is this -- does this amount to animal cruelty as far as you're concerned?

FONG: Yes, it does. It amounts to animal cruelty, just like the tusks of elephants being removed from the ivory, and the paws of tigers being removed just to remove them. It's unhealthy for the sharks to have them killed like that. And it's unhealthy for the ocean's ecosystem. Because the sharks are the top food predator, and it keeps the balance of other fisheries in the ocean, and so it's like a house of cards, when the top food predator falls, the rest of the ocean can fall as well.

CAVANAUGH: So and just to be clear, the shark can no longer live without its fin, right?

FONG: That's correct. They just eventually die, they suffocate or they're eaten by other animals and they drown.

CAVANAUGH: So what was actually the impetus for you to introduce this legislation now?

FONG: Well, you know, it's never too late to protect our ocean's ecosystem and to protect our sharks, and I just saw the cruel horrific practice of finning, and I just that I should do something to stop it.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of support do you have in the legislature? And in the governor's office for this bill?

FONG: Well, I have good support from the legislatures, I have a lot of legislatures coming up to me to coauthor the bill. I haven't talked to the governor yet, but I think the governor will be inclined to look at it seriously.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with California state assemblyman Paul Fong, he's cosponsor of a bill to one the possession, sale, and distribution of shark fins in California. And I'm wondering, assemblyman Fong, what -- is there much shark finning, actual -- the finning that goes on off the coast of California?

FONG: Well, finning is against the law. I'm sure that it goes on because it's hard to monitor. We can't send our public officials out there to monitor the fishermen, that's basically -- it's a toothless law.

CAVANAUGH: And so you're trying to -- you're trying to stop the ability of those people who are maybe engaging in that illegal activity to tell their product. ?

FONG: Right, we're trying to stop the imports and just basically stop it at the marketplace. The demand for sharks' fins.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what about some of the restaurants that serve shark fin soup? Have you gotten any pressure from these businesses or other people against this legislation?

FONG: I received some push back from some restaurants, not all restaurants serve it. And some of them that do are fighting to continue to serve it. [Check] substitutes they can provide on the menu as well.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So what is the next step for this legislation?

FONG: Well, it's gonna go before the water parks and wildlife committee. I'll probably present it next month some time. And then after the committee vote, it goes to the floor, and well, after the assembly floor, it goes over to the senate side, and then the senate side will go to the committee assigned to it, as well as the floor vote. And after it approves both houses, then it goes to the governor's desk.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right; well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

FONG: All right. Thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Even speaking with California state assemblyman Paul Fong, he is cosponsor of a bill that would ban the sale of shark fins in the State of California. We're gonna continue this conversation with a number of other guests. And we will also discuss those claims from some Asian community leaders that their culture and heritage are being targeted by the proposed ban. And we will return to These Days in just a few minutes here on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Environmentalists say the finning of sharks for shark fin soup and other delicacies is both cruel and threatening to the health of the ocean. And we are continuing our conversation about this because the sale of shark fins is now proposed to be illegal in California. There is a bill that would ban the position, sale, and distribution of shark fins. We'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you enjoy shark fin soup as a delicacy? Do you agree that the sale of shark fins should be banned? Give us a call with your questions and comments if you'd like. Of the number is 1-888-895-5727. I'd hike to introduce some new guests to our conversation. Judy ki is a retired educator. She is co-share of the Asian Pacific Americans Ocean Harmony Alliance. Judy, good morning good morning.

FONG: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Dan Cartamil is post-doctoral researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He's studied sharks and rays in the Bahamas, Hawaii and, and California. Dan, good morning.

CARTAMIL: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And on the phone, we're joined by Mike Coots from the island of Kawai. He lost his leg in a shark attack in 1997, but not only is he still surfing but he's lobbied in Washington DC to support a bill that would ban the finning of sharks in all U.S. waters. Mike, thank you so much for joining us.

COOTS: Yeah, good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Judy, tell us why your organization -- what your organization is and why you're involved in the effort to ban shark fins.

FONG: A month ago I friend of mine from the humane society of the United States asked me if I want to get involved with the shark fin ban. I said where do I sign up? Because I am really passionate about helping with the environment. Over 4000 years of Chinese philosophy really emphasizes our -- the importance of keeping a balance between humans and nature. And most of the religions in China also supports that. The Taoists live by the path, and that path is, again, living in harmony with nature and keeping a balance of all the -- you know, the ecosystem, with nature and human activities.

CAVANAUGH: And so this -- the practice of shark finning puts us out of balance with nature?

FONG: Yes, because when you look at killing all the top predators just for their fins, it is wrong on so many levels, not only environmentally but on a humane aspect when I grew up in Hong Kong, my mom was gonna be 92 next month. She's a very, very traditional Chinese lady. And she always taught us that you don't hurt animals, things like even lizards of we were asked not to hurt lizards because she said they have a purpose. They eat mosquitoes. They are beneficial 678 so I was raised by parents who were very traditional Chinese and also taught the love of animals. And not just the cuddly cute ones.

CAVANAUGH: And yet, Judy, there are some people in the Asian community who point to this proposed legislation and say you are targeting something that is traditional, something that is a cultural staple of Asian culture, shark fin soup. Why are you targeting us?

FONG: Shark fin being a staple in the Chinese diet is actually a myth. Shark fin is really used for special occasions, it really is about wealth. People who are privileged can have shark fin. It's not the average Chinese person. They do not eat shark fin on a regular basis. Also --

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right, I'll come back to you in a minute. We do have a caller on the line. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Bruce is calling from La Jolla. Gorge, Bruce, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I'm calling essentially with the same comment. There's no way that a ban like this is targeting Asian people because we don't like Asian people. We're gonna go after something that Asians prefer more than other people. This is an environmental question, and a humane question relative to the animals involved. There is nothing in this that is racial or in any way targeting groups of people. This is about the sharks. Not the people.

CAVANAUGH: Got it, Bruce, thank you for your comment. I just want to build on something that Judy was saying, Dan, and go to you. And talk about how the practice of shark finning, as you approach this as a researcher for Scripps institution of oceanography, how does it contribute to the decline of sharks? I mean, not just the sharks that are obviously kill indeed this manner, but to the species.

CARTAMIL: Yeah, that's a good question. We were talking about this earlier in the green room, the question of whether shark fisheries could be sustainable. And that's a question that's gone around a lot in specific circles, and probably one of the main obstacles to having sustainable fisheries is the fact that there's a lot of illegal activity going on, particularly in developing countries. Shark finning is one of the worst as far as that goes. So we've got -- we may get tons of fins coming into California. Most of those aren't coming from California fisheries. They're coming from places like Costa Rica, they're coming from places like the Galapagos islands, they're coming from the middle of the Pacific. So there's a lot of illegal fishing going on, there's no monitoring of these fisheries, and there's no regulation. So we already know that sharks are -- declined drastically over the last few decades in population size. And so this is it a very grave problem.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Mike, I want to come to you, Mike Coots. You have a very intriguing story that led you to being -- to speaking out to behalf of people who support a ban on the taking of shark fins. You might think that since you lost your leg in a shark attack that you really wouldn't care much what happened to sharks, okay? Can you tell us, first of all, what happened to you, where you were attacked and what that was?

COOTS: Yeah, it was in late October of 97 on the island of Kawai here in Hawaii. And I had gone out with some buddies surfing early in the morning, and kind of waited for a wave, and really a nice one came, and I paddled for it, and a large tiger shark came vertically from underneath me and latched on to both of my legs, and I did kind of the rag doll type thing, and out of instincts I punched it with my left-hand, and it released its grip on my legs. And I paddled towards shore, and my friends put a tourniquet around my leg, and dragged me around the beach, and a pickup truck came in, I jumped in, they took me to the ER, and I subsequently lost my right leg below the knee, and a bunch of lacerations on my left foot, and my right index finger got split open from trying to stick my hand in it mouth trying to get my legs out.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right, right. And so I know that you went back to surfing really pretty fast after the attack.

COOTS: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And I know that you're a photographer, a surfing photographer, an ocean photographer. What made you become so passionate about sharks after your experience and losing your leg?

COOTS: Well, actually to be honest, the practice of shark finning, I had never really heard too much about it until a few years ago when I got contacted by an environment group in Washington, and they asked if I wanted to be an advocate for shark protection, and I was kind of just, obviously clueless on the subject, and they sent me some videos to check out, and I watched that movie shark water and was absolutely just amazed on what was going on. I had no idea that basically 70 million sharks a year were getting finned. And basically just in my position to maybe be an advocate for the sharks, and yeah. It's been kind of a long process to try to join different legislatures and different things going on, trying to get bills passed, and we actually just got a new state law in Hawaii about a year ago, senator Clayton, he kind of sponsored the bill, and it basically makes shark fins in Hawaii, position of shark fins, kind of like a narcotic, you can't have any shark fin products in the state of Hawaii.

CAVANAUGH: How is that working out, do you know?

COOTS: I'm not sure. I know they gave notices to restaurants, I think about six months ago, saying in this state, you guys must have completely zero fin stock in your restaurant, and I think they've done a pretty good job of doing that so far.

CAVANAUGH: Judy, there are a number of restaurant here in San Diego that have shark fin soup on their menu, even though it is a delicacy, and it's not something that people have a lot, necessarily. Have you heard from any local restaurants or local markets that might be against this proposed legislation here in California.

FONG: Honestly, no. I don't think I have heard from any of them. Most of the restaurants I go to do not serve shark fin soup.

CAVANAUGH: I see, I see. Do you think that -- can a ban, I want to ask both of you, Dan, and Judy, starting with Judy, can a ban like this really be enforced?

FONG: Evidently, it's working in Hawaii. And also the Mariana Islands have also passed the legislation. Again, like assemblyman Fong said, the ivory trade, the ban on the ivory trade, I think is working because you do have to stop the demand. I personally just don't think our culture is that fragile that it would fall apart without one little delicacy that only people -- wealthy people can afford to eat. And to those who talk about our culture being attacked, my grandmother, her foot were bound -- her feet you were bound, and that was part of our culture. And I'm very glad that brave women and men stood up and said that is wrong, and we stopped doing that. And I feel the same. We have -- Asian Americans have a responsibility to stand up and say we need to protect our oceans and our ecosystems. Because our children and their children deserves a healthy environment to live in.

CAVANAUGH: And Dan, thank you for that Judy, for that clarification. And Dan, to you, the question, do you think that a ban like this can actually be enforced?

CARTAMIL: I do. I think that what can't be enforced, realistically, is a ban on the actual practice of finning. Because there's -- if there's a demand, there's going to be people out there illegally finning. The only way we can cut down on that is if we cut down on the demand. That's one thing that can be enforced. You can go into restaurants, you can go into stores, you can hold those entities accountable for what they're doing. So I think it can be enforced. I think it's a good idea for California and hopefully it'll spread to other areas.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Or if you'd like, you can go on our website and comment. KPBS.org/These Days. Steve is on the line, he's in I-5. Good morning, Steve. Welcome to these days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my call. I think the initial question I was gonna ask has been addressed already, so I'm gonna likely change my question. There was a -- a move last December, I think it was, by Henry's grocery store chains that stopped selling shark. My understanding is the shark they would have been selling was [CHECK AUDIO] and I was wondering if Dan or anybody else on the show can comment on whether, number one, Thomas thresher shark is shark fin, and number two, if not, whether it makes sense for that particular species of shark to be targeted we Henry's that the sharks cannot be sold. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Got it, Steve. And Dan would you like to respond?

CARTAMIL: That's a really interesting question, and it's somewhat of a contentious issue right now. Because common thresher shark is the largest commercial shark fishery off California waters. It has been for some time. There was a lot of concern about the thresher shark fishery about 20 years ago because it appeared to have crashed from over fishing. But since then, the fishery itself has been highly regulated, way over regulated if you ask the fisherman. But what we think from a fishery standpoint that it's regulated well, and that perhaps the population is actually increasing a little bit. And so, you know, if you look at both sides of the issue, fishermen might say, well, why are you targeting thresher shark when it's probably one of the few shark species that may be recovering? But at the same time, we don't know. This is one of the most important issues with shark fisheries is that we don't really know how many sharks are in the ocean. And we know how many are being taken in the United States, but we don't know how many are being taken in other parts of the world. For example, fresher sharks share their range with California waters, and they also venture into Mexican waters, so they're taken in large amounts in the traditional shark fisheries in Baja California and also in commercial fisheries. So in it these cases, it's good to be proactive, I think. To make sure that you're not depleting the resources. We don't have all the information to make the best informed decision, but we're trying to do the best we can.

CAVANAUGH: Dan, we heard from Judy say that the shark are one of the top predators in the ocean's ecosystem. So Dan, what happens if the shark populations dwindle?

CARTAMIL: That's another good question. I get asked that all the time. And the answer is, it depends on the species. All we can say for sure that definitely the balance of trophic levels and how things work in the ocean is gonna be affected.

CAVANAUGH: What does that mean? Trophic levels.

CARTAMIL: Trophic levels are the different levels -- so you've got -- the lower things would be things like plankton, phytoplankton, the producers, and then things that feed upon those would be consumers. And then at the top of the consumer, the highest level predators will be animals like sharks, if you take away sharks and suddenly you've opened up a whole world for the next level to fill up. And we don't really know what the long-term ramifications are for oceanic species because it's such a complex ecosystem. Everything fits in and affects the other levels. But for example it's been shown in many places, for example, that if you take away sharks, many coral reef ecosystems become degraded in places like bays. If you take away the sharks, what happens is that suddenly there's a lot of stingrays because they have no predators. And now the string rays maybe will eat all the oysters, which are a commercial fishery. So depending on the situation and the fiduciary, there can be many ramifications, the very least of which is the entire ecosystem balance is thrown out of whack.

CAVANAUGH: Mike Coots, you went to Washington to testify for a national legislation to ban shark fins. Tell us about that.

COOTS: Yeah, it was for the shark conservation act of two this happened. It was basically kind of killing in some loopholes that was in that act. Like it basically prohibited shark finning in American waters. But people would find ways of, let's say, transporting fins at sea from a fishing vessel to a shipping vessel, and in the small print it said that shipping vessels could come into U.S. ports with fins. So it kind of circumvents the laws, and this new bill just kind of closed all of the loopholes in the original bill. It was, I think, founded by Senator Kerry, and pretty much had widespread support except for a couple east coast senators, and was finally signed by Obama, I believe, a little over a month ago.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So this is now law.

COOTS: Yeah, it just became law, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Is your goal a worldwide ban?

COOTS: Yeah. We're trying to hope is just countries with their own individual laws would kind of get together, and like, just start banning shark finning in their countries, and then the neighboring countries would see that it's not the end of the world. And [CHECK AUDIO] especially a lot of the smaller nations in the Pacific.

CAVANAUGH: And Judy, I know that your not necessarily an expert on this, but what is your take on how the smaller nations in the Pacific or the larger nations in the Pacific feel about banning the practice of shark finning?

FONG: I honestly think that people who live in the smaller nations that rely on subsistence for fishing, that's a totally different story. They're not doing this cruel practice of finning, just to take the fin and leave the shark there to bleed to death and die. I think subsistence fishing is very, very different. And I see a good trend and hope this legislation is also being considered, I think, in Guam. And I know the Mariana islands have also just signed this bill last month. And as for China, I'm hearing really good information from the organization called wild aid. The Chinese government now are actually working with wild aid providing free billboard space, like for people at Yao-Ming, which says say no to shark fin. So again it starts with the educational process. And I know young people are totally behind this. I see on Facebook all my young Chinese friends who say there is not gonna be any shark fin at my wedding.

CAVANAUGH: 'Cause that's a tradition, having it at a wedding or a big banquet or something like that.

FONG: Right. It shows that you have the wealth, and that you can afford it. Of it's about privilege, it's about prestige. And I really am happy to see that most of the young people -- in fact it was, like my nephew who told me about the finning practice. And as soon as I learned about it, I said I don't need to eat that because that is just not part of my being. That's not how I was raised. That's not my belief. And my family is totally behind me on that.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, we see a lot, Dan, there are programs of little green peace ships going up against big Japanese whaling vessels and trying to stop them. Are we gonna start seeing, you know, little green peace ships going up against Asian finning vessels and things of that nature? My question being it almost seems somewhat futile, you know, when you're up against these big corporate interests, these big commercial fishery interests.

CARTAMIL: Yeah. Yeah, well, my gut feeling is that it's really -- at least in -- I can't speak about most of the developing countries, but my gut feeling is that these aren't really large corporate interests that are really doing this for the most part. They're smaller independent vessels, usually from developing countries, and again the problem is monitoring. If you're -- if you have vessels that are doing finning off shore of, say, mainland Mexico. The Mexican government and Mexican fisheries agency do not have the resources to monitor the oceans of it's just a vast place, it's almost impossible. So I think this is a great -- I think this is a great proposal because it, you know, it cuts off the demands we said. And that's really the only way to attack this problem.

CAVANAUGH: I have to give you the last word. We are out of time. I want to thank my guest so much, Judy Ki, Dan Cartamil, and Mike Coots. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

FONG: Thank you.

COOTS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. If you would like to comment on anything you've heard, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Coming up, we'll hear about the curious after life of Chula Vista's Proposition H. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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