California's Legislature sent Gov. Jerry Brown a bill seeking to ban the sale, trade or possession of shark fins on Tuesday, over the objections of two senators who called the measure racist because the fins are used in a soup considered a delicacy in some Asian cultures.
The bill has split the Asian delegation in the Legislature. It was introduced by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, and was supported by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, who said it is needed to protect endangered shark species.
Others disagreed. Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, noted that the bill would ban only part of the shark while permitting the continued consumption of shark skin or steaks.
"This bill goes out of its way to be discriminatory," Lieu said. "They single out one cultural practice."
Critics of the practice, which already is restricted in U.S. waters, estimate that fishermen kill 73 million sharks each year for their fins. They said it is particularly cruel because the wounded sharks often are returned to the ocean to die after their fins are removed.
The fins can sell for $600 a pound, and the soup can cost $80 a bowl.
Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, who carried AB376 in the Senate, said California has the highest demand for the fins outside Asia. She cited estimates that 85 percent of dried shark fin imports to the United States come through California, giving the bill an impact beyond efforts to restrict the practice in the U.S. and abroad.
"It's our market here that drives the slaughter," Kehoe said. "We are an importer and a broker worldwide."
The proposed ban has been supported by celebrities including actress Bo Derek and retired NBA center Yao Ming. The state Senate approved the bill on a 25-9 vote.
It drew rare support from both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats during a lengthy debate.
Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, called the practice "a barbarous and torturous act.
"The shark just sits there and drowns. That's equivalent to torture," Strickland said.
Hawaii, Oregon, Washington state and several U.S. territories in the Pacific already have taken steps to eliminate the shark fin trade.
However, Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, cited a recent National Marine Fisheries Service report to Congress estimating that imports and exports of shark fins from the entire United States last year were a fraction of 1 percent of the worldwide market.
"This bill doesn't do anything for finning, because the federal government has already taken care of the problem," he argued.
Yee also objected to a second cleanup bill, also passed by the Senate on Tuesday, that makes it clear that sport fishermen who catch a shark can still eat the fin or have the shark stuffed and mounted as a trophy.
"If you happen to be Chinese-American and you're not the fisherman, you can't have the shark fin," Yee said.
"It sends a very bad message, not only to us here in California but throughout the rest of the world, that discrimination against Chinese-Americans is OK," Yee told senators moments later.
"We shouldn't have to defend our culture any more than you others should defend your culture, because we ought to be respectful of each others' culture."
The cleanup language in AB853 says that while the finning ban would take effect Jan. 1, 2012, those who have existing stocks of shark fin then could continue selling it for one year. It also clarifies that the ban would not affect stuffing and mounting of sharks, nor the donation of fins to research or medical institutions.
The cleanup bill passed on a 28-8 roll call, but goes back to the Assembly for a final vote on the amendments.
Passage of the bills drew praise from the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, along with the environmental group Oceana.
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor has not taken a position on the bills.