The Great Shark Slaughter 

Lovers of shark fin soup say it's a cultural tradition, but science proves it's brutal and inhumane.

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In 1997, he was scoping out a Taiwan marina for evidence of dolphin killing when he stumbled upon an entire dock covered with hundreds and hundreds of six-inch fins drying in the sun. "I thought, how on earth can this be sustainable?" he said. Three years later, Knights cofounded WildAid, a group that aims to curb the shark trade worldwide.

Knights argues that bans on finning just aren't enough. For example, after the enactment of a shark-finning ban in Hawaii in the summer of 2001, there was a 54 percent decline in US fin imports via Hong Kong. But without a corresponding drop in demand, this blow to a specific supply chain had little effect. The international fin trade has only grown in the years since, and the central Pacific continues to be a hot spot for the shark trade.

In the United States, federal law prohibits bringing sharks onshore without their fins attached, but a loophole allows the import of fins from countries that permit finning. With AB 376, Democratic state Assemblymen Paul Fong of Cupertino and Jared Huffman of San Rafael aim to strike a blow to the supply chain and consumer demand by completely banning the sale and import of shark fins in California.

Such a ban also could help turn the tide against shark finning throughout the nation and the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, San Diego and Los Angeles are the two top entry points for shark fins in the United States.

But AB 376 could face stiff opposition from conservative Republicans in Sacramento. A spokesman for Assemblyman Bill Berryhill of Stockton, who sits on the committee that will hear the bill, suggested that it might place undue restrictions on local sport fishermen. "It could be unconstitutional, frankly," he said.

Environmentalists concede that fishermen who bring in sharks with fins attached do far less harm than those who strip-mine habitats by hacking sharks to death. But the only way to keep illegally or unethically obtained fins out of local Chinatowns, they say, is to impose a blanket ban.

For many years, the ecological consequences of the hyper-efficient, mostly unregulated shark hunt went unnoticed. While many fish have been protected for decades, sharks, who live a migratory life far from shore, were not closely monitored until recently. Scientists now know that despite their fearsome reputations, sharks are an ecologically weak species.

While most fish reproduce quickly and in great numbers, sharks, who can live as long as humans, take years to reach sexual maturity, and gestate their young for up to two years. Forty years after the rise of longlining, one third of sharks, rays, and skates are threatened with extinction, and as many as 90 percent of sharks in the world's open oceans have disappeared, according to research published in the scientific journal Nature.

International laws protect only three species of shark. Great white, basking, and whale sharks come under the jurisdiction of the same UN body that protects tigers and giant pandas. Last year, eight additional shark species were put before the body to be considered for protection. None were accepted.

A decade ago, there also was no way to determine whether a dried fin came from a protected shark species. But, today, advances in DNA testing have made some monitoring possible. The technique was devised after federal agents spotted a suspicious bag on a routine visit to a seafood dealer. The large nylon sack destined for Asia was labeled "porbeagle" shark. But inside, agents found a hidden label that read "blanco" — white. Could the fins have been from great white sharks, the agents wondered? The DNA confirmed their fears. The fins came from 21 sharks, all great whites — mostly pups.

Authorities discovered the cache in New York, but there's no reason to think that Bay Area fins come from shark species that are more abundant than great whites. The Hamilton Lab at the California Academy of Sciences ran DNA tests on fins picked up in San Francisco's Chinatown this year and found that over half of the sample came from sharks recognized as "vulnerable."

Scientists also say the ancient predator's increasing absence from the world's oceans is beginning to manifest itself in ecological imbalances. McCosker of the Academy of Sciences is concerned about the potential widespread impacts of shark finning. "I'm more worried about the health of the ocean, which is also in a downward spiral," he said.

For Christopher Chin, the key to ending the fin trade in California lies in spreading the sense of empathy with sharks that he discovered when coming face to face with one in Fiji. He is mostly optimistic. After all, Americans used to think of whales as man-eating monsters. Just look at Moby Dick. And elephants kill more people annually than sharks, yet ivory poachers are universally reviled.

"Sharks aren't huggable like pandas," McCosker noted. "But they're way cool."

Still, Chin is worried by the attitude he sees at the Berkeley Marina, where fishermen take trophy photos and sometimes pretend to kick their shark catches. And he is also troubled by what he sees as widespread — possibly willful — ignorance of where shark fins come from.

In any case, he believes that in the not-so-distant future, fins will disappear from Chinatown shops and restaurants. "The question," he said, "is only whether it happens before we run out of sharks."

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