California’s sharks are safe for now, at least, since a federal court dismissed a suit filed by the shark finning industry in an attempt to overturn California’s groundbreaking 2011 legislation targeting finning.
This practice, in which fins are removed from live sharks who are thrown back into the water to die, is brutal, inhumane, and unnecessary — and it would seem that the federal district court agrees. The dismissal marks the latest in a long line of blows against attempts to turn back the clock on California’s finning regulations.
The story starts with the legislation in 2011, which prohibited not just finning, but also possessing, handling, selling, trading and other financial activities related to shark fins. Initially, the federal government opposed the law, fearing that it might interfere with national marine fisheries management, but it ultimately came around, harmonizing federal law (which prohibits finning but not other practices) with the state law. As in other areas of the law, California was allowed to have a more stringent standard than the federal law required (as, for example, with emissions laws for California vehicles).
Shark finning industry members immediately opposed the law, and they were joined by Asian-American advocacy groups who claimed the law was discriminatory in nature because it targeted a traditional practice. This required careful consideration and review, as federal courts take such accusations very seriously. However, these groups withdrew their suit in February after a very large shark fin bust in San Francisco, clearly fearing that it wouldn’t be successful.
The other suit still remained, however. In deliberations, the federal court determined that the law served an important function in conserving California sharks and protecting human health and welfare. In addition, the court felt the law was not inconsistent with federal law, and could be allowed to stand without interfering with the function of federal jurisdiction over marine fisheries and marine animal protection. The court’s decision was counted as a win by conservation groups concerned with the dwindling number of sharks worldwide.
This law sets an important precedent for other states, which could use it as model legislation to restrict the ownership, sale, trade and use of shark fins within their borders as well. In California, conservationists argued, while federal law made finning itself illegal, it was perfectly legal to own fins. This created a situation where there was still a legal market for the delicacy, which created openings for fins exported from elsewhere as well as a black market in illegally taken fins. California’s law tightens up the net, making the oceans that much safer for sharks.
Laws like this can be tricky, as they definitely do have a disparate racial impact — shark fin soup is a delicacy in the Chinese community, and thus Chinese people are most likely to be affected by the law. The court determined it was constitutional on the basis that the impact was not intentional, but it does raise an important question: can the Chinese community come up with a palatable humane alternative to shark fins so they can carry on traditional recipes and ways of living?
Photo credit: Joi Ito.