The bust of a Bay Area restaurant last month for serving shark fin soup led investigators for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) to San Francisco fish vendor Kwong Yip Inc., where they found 2,138 pounds of recently-banned shark fins.
It was the first significant haul of contraband since the 2011 California law banning the traditional Chinese delicacy was fully phased in last July. DFW Lieutenant Patrick Foy told the San Francisco Chronicle the fins came from “probably thousands of sharks.”
California joined a worldwide movement against the mutilation of sharks for their fins—and decimation of shark populations in general—when it passed the law banning possession and sale of shark fins. Fishermen catch sharks, cut off their fins and then throw the fish back in the ocean because demand for shark meat isn’t high.
Tens of millions of sharks die a slow death annually from “finning.” Conservationists cite studies that estimate “55% of sharks that have enough data available to assess them (150 species) are threatened or near threatened with extinction.” An estimated 26 million to 73 million sharks are killed every year for their fins, according to statistics cited by the Humane Society of the United States.
The San Francisco Chinatown Neighborhood Association and Asian Americans for Political Advancement consider the ban a discriminatory unconstitutional assault on people who find shark fin soup a delicacy and a centerpiece of cultural traditions stretching back to the Ming Dynasty. The groups sued in federal court to have the law overturned.
Michael Kwong, owner of Kwong Yip Inc., has been a vocal critic of the ban and is a member of the Asian American Rights Committee of California, which filed a separate lawsuit challenging the law. The group dropped its lawsuit after the January 29 bust, according to Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for Humane Society.
Kwong could go to jail for his indiscretion, although the violation is a misdemeanor. It is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act (pdf) in 2011, which plugged a loophole in an existing U.S. ban on finning. That gap in the law allowed boats to haul shark fins around as long as they didn’t have any fishing gear aboard. A Coast Guard bust in 2002 of the Hong Kong-based “King Diamond II” charter vessel with 32 tons of shark fins aboard put a spotlight on the legal deficiency when the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal tossed out a U.S. District Court conviction.
In addition to California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington, and three Pacific territories, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, have passed state laws prohibiting the sale, trade and possession of shark fins.