Sharks -- and ocean ecosystems -- are winning big victories these days. It's not a minute too soon.
The United States has banned shark finning in U.S. waters. It's a wasteful practice that involves catching sharks just for their fins, with the animals themselves tossed overboard -- dead or dying -- so the fishing boats have room to pack in more fins.
The fins are primarily used to make shark fin soup -- a luxury item in Chinese cuisine that's sometimes on the menu for festive and ceremonial occasions. While conscious chefs are creating delicious shark-free alternatives , shark fin soup is growing in popularity, costing the lives of tens of millions of sharks each year.
The number is not sustainable: Not for sharks, which reproduce slowly. And not for the oceans, which rely on these top predators to maintain the natural balance that keeps ecosystems healthy.
In recent years, organizations like WildAid have been working to raise consumer awareness in Asia about the plight of shark populations, to reduce and someday eliminate the demand and market for shark fins. Without a market for the fins, they'll stay on sharks -- where they belong.
In 2010, Hawaii became the first state to outlaw the trade in shark fins. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have banned the fin trade as well. Earlier this year, the state of Washington joined them. In Oregon, legislation to ban the shark fin trade now awaits the governor's signature.
Now the California State Assembly, on a vote of 65-8, has passed a bill to outlaw the possession and sale of shark fins in the state. The legislation, co-authored by Chinese-American Assemblymember Paul Fong and his colleague Jared Huffman, now heads to the State Senate, where final action is expected this summer. UPDATE: The senate Natural Resources and Water committee will vote on the bill June 28. Committee members need to hear from constituents that they support the bill.)
This is a big step, as California represents one of the largest markets for shark fins outside Asia.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a lead sponsor of the bill, along with a broad coalition of environmental and Asian Pacific American groups -- as well as notable chefs like Charles Phan and Martin Yan, and prominent figures such as NBA star Yao Ming, a native of China.
The vote reflected the sentiments of most Californians who, according to an aquarium-commissioned poll of registered voters, overwhelmingly support the ban.
The movement is gaining ground not just in the United States but in China as well. Recently, a prominent Chinese businessman and legislator proposed a ban on selling shark fins in China. According to the Agence France Presse report, such a measure would be highly controversial and take many years to enact. The fact that it's even being discussed is a quantum leap forward. It's likely that he was inspired by the debate taking place in the United States.
We've demonized sharks for far too long. Sharks and our oceans are paying too high a price. Now the tide is turning, and when it does, sharks won't be the only winners. All of us will benefit from a world where ocean ecosystems teem with the myriad species that provide humankind with food and livelihoods, and from the joy of sharing our world with mysterious and beautiful animals like sharks.