The Fin Trade Has Jumped the Shark

On September 20, 1977 the character Fonzie played by Henry Winkler made television history. He was one of the stars of Happy Days, and in the episode that aired that night he literally jumped over a confined shark while water-skiing -- all while wearing swimming trunks and his trademark leather jacket. From then on "to jump the shark" has come to be known as a defining moment when you know that something iconic -- from a television show to traditional ways of doing business -- has reached its peak, and it is probably better to stop it all together since letting it linger on -- although difficult -- may do more harm than good.

The shark fin trade has "jumped the shark," and it is time for Governor Brown to sign legislation that would bring it to an end in California.

Although an ancient practice, in the last few decades the demand for shark fins has increased dramatically. Today WildAid estimates that around 73 million sharks are killed every year, mostly for their fins. At that rate, our oceans' shark populations simply can't keep up.
By far, the largest demand for shark fins is to make shark fin soup, with some varieties costing upwards of $100 a bowl. A symbol of wealth and luxury, shark fin soup was once the delicacy of Chinese Emperors -- renowned for its rarity. However, today, it is typically served at weddings and banquets to demonstrate a host's good fortune.

The dramatic increase in demand for shark fins has led to a decrease in shark population and a striking impact on our oceans too. Sharks play a vital role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems, and they often serve as the indicator species of our ocean's health. Unlike other marine creatures, sharks produce a small number of well-developed young as opposed to a large number of poorly developed young, and sharks mature slowly relative to many other fish. This is where consumption meets reality: sharks simply do not reproduce quickly enough to recover from the impact of the shark trade.

Recognizing the shark crisis, states began passing legislation to ban the sale of shark fins. Hawaii was the first last year, followed by Oregon and Washington this year. And finally, earlier this month the California legislature sent a bill to Governor Brown that would end the sale of shark fins in California.

California is a trafficking center for shark fins from all over the world, including North America, South America and Asia. Fins from the Gulf and East Coasts, where shark numbers have plummeted, are trafficked through California at significant rates: approximately 85% of all dried shark fin imports come to the U.S. through California. Trade regulators record that California imports 30 tons of dried fins each year, a number that does not include fins that are trucked over our borders from other states and which is based only on information self-reported by shark fin traders. It is likely that the amount of fins coming through California is much higher given that fin trading is under-reported and unchecked.

This California legislation has a real opportunity to curb the demand for shark fins. Outside of Asia, California has the highest consumption for shark fins of anywhere in the world.

Even though often doing the right thing is not always the popular thing, polling conducted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium found that 76% of registered voters in California support the proposed ban -- including 70% of Chinese-American respondents.

The governor has a rare opportunity to dramatically reduce the global killing of sharks and improve the health of our oceans. States along the Pacific have joined together, with legislators from both parties voting to pass real reform that will stop the trade.

It is time for California to follow their lead. If not, the only sharks we may see will be on television reruns.