News Column

Shark Fin Ban Takes Affect

July 1, 2013

Neal J. Riley

Finally, a California law passed in 2011 to ban the trade, sale and possession of shark fins will have teeth.

It's been illegal since January for restaurants to buy shark fins, but starting Monday, it will be against the law to serve fins in restaurants and also illegal for people to keep fins in their homes. The maximum penalty is six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.

The ban has been especially controversial within the Chinese community, where the expensive dish served as a soup is considered a delicacy. Supporters of the ban said the sale of shark fins encourages the cruel practice of cutting the fins off living sharks and tossing the fish back into ocean. Although this is illegal in U.S. waters, it is unregulated internationally, which has led to shark population declines worldwide.

"Shark fin store special: We won't keep a single piece" read a sign across the entrance of Chung Chou City, a chain store in Chinatown that will lose $341,000 as a result of the ban, General Manager Anna Li said in court documents.

Jeanet Chen of San Francisco picked up two bags of shark fin pieces that were selling for a discounted price of $298 per pound. The regular price for whole fins ran up to $668 a pound.

"It's delicious," said Chen, who planned to invite family and friends over for one last meal before the "unfair" ban took effect. "We'll eat it tomorrow and then, no more."

The Animal Welfare Institute lists about 50 Chinese restaurants in San Francisco that serve shark fin, though Pius Lee, co-chair of the Chinatown Neighborhood Association, which opposes the ban, said many have already stopped serving it as the ban nears. Some restaurants, including Koi Palace in Daly City, which says it stands to lose $850,000 annually because of the ban, were planning to hold special banquets over the weekend to serve shark fin soup one last time, he said.

Lee said his association has run Chinese-language television and radio ads and put up signs to let merchants know they will be penalized if they don't obey the ban.

"If you had any unsold or any in possession, we recommended eating it now or sending it to friends in other states," Lee said. "Right now I'm telling all merchants and restaurant people the law is the law, we have to comply with the laws."

After the ban takes effect, shark meat besides the fin will still be available, something Lee said doesn't make sense.

"If you want to save the shark, you have to save the whole fish, not just parts of it," he said.

Lee's group has filed a lawsuit in federal court to be heard in August, alleging that the ban violates equal protection rights for Chinese Americans and is in conflict with federal law that allows fishermen hunting whole sharks to also sell the fins. State bans on fins are in place in Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.

"We are not antishark or antishark protections, but in the United States you're (already) not allowed to fin," said plaintiff's attorney Joseph Breall. "This state law is just way too broad."

In a ruling this year, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton disagreed.

"Plaintiffs have provided no evidence that the law was enacted for the purpose of discriminating against Chinese Americans," Hamilton ruled. "Plaintiff's own evidence shows that only a small percent of Chinese Americans eat shark fin soup regularly, and that approximately half of Chinese Americans actually support the Shark Fin Law."

Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the department has been educating restaurant owners and Chinese communities about the ban since the beginning of the year. Restaurants' inventories will be examined to see if they have any shark fins, and even homes could be searched with a warrant.

"Whether you try to eat it yourself or drive it over the state line, if you got it, you're in violation of the law," she said.

Neal J. Riley is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: nriley@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @realdealneal

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