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Mike Sweeney is executive director of The Nature Conservancy in California. This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle’s City Brights blog.

Yao Ming — who was born in China and today plays center for the Houston Rockets — is using his celebrity on billboards in China and buses in San Francisco to join the chorus of voices including Jack Ma, one of China’s most influential business leaders, and groups like the Asian Americans for Community Involvement in recognizing thatCalifornia can take a leading role in banning the practice of “shark finning” and the catastrophic losses of sharks around the world.

And when Mr. Yao — the tallest player in the NBA — stands up for something, you can’t help but notice.

Assembly member Paul Fong, the author of the shark fin ban at the state level, gave especially poignant testimony about how the proposed ban could be used as a tool to leverage trade policy because of California’s market influence.

Mr. Fong told his colleagues in the Legislature that when he was a child his family would celebrate special occasions with shark fin soup. Mr. Fong then pointed to the global depletion of sharks as a cautionary tale: All of us must recognize that global population growth and growing prosperity in China and East Asia have now led to an almost insatiable appetite for shark fins to meet an ever-growing demand for shark fins. 

For many, this loss may not be visible—or some may raise the issue of whether demand for shark fins interferes with cultural practices and represents an assault on Asian cuisine. We have recently seen this response in the Bay Area and at San Francisco City Hall.

Let me offer another perspective: I was recently traveling in Indonesia, and while diving I was struck that for the first time I did not see any sharks in the oceans there. Now, those who get nightmares from watching Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” may take this decline as a sign of success, but taking sharks out of the natural environment is the equivalent of eradicating the grizzly from California.

In erasing unique predators we erase a part of our own humanity.

My experience in Indonesia was far from unique. Although our oceans contain hundreds of millions of sharks, a report released to the United Nations last year estimated that 73 million sharks are killed every year—largely to meet the rising demand for shark fin soup.

As a result, some species populations are only a tenth of what they once were. Even Fox News has reported on how the dramatic decline of sharks has caused a dangerous domino effect throughout the ocean ecosystem. We are at a tipping point and must act now before the balance is permanently thrown off.

The growing shark fin trade is driving increased shark fishing and putting these already vulnerable animals at risk of extinction. Shark finning is nothing short of barbaric. It involves cutting off a shark’s fins and then discarding the animal at sea. The shark is almost always still alive when it is tossed back into the water. Without fins the paralyzed shark slowly sinks in the water, where it either drowns or is eaten alive by other fish.

Although both California and federal laws ban shark finning, these laws are simply insufficient to stem these catastrophic shark declines. Here is the problem: It is illegal to fin sharks in the United States and California, but it is perfectly legal to sell shark fins here.

Ironically, when I got back to California, I had no problem finding sharks. They were not swimming in the ocean or at the aquarium, but within a 15-minute walk from my house in San Francisco I found a store stocked with jars of shark fins—hundreds of dead sharks awaiting consumers. Those fins could have very well come from sharks off the Indonesia shore, as Indonesia is the biggest exporter of shark fins. The act is illegal, but the byproduct is perfectly legal. As Sean Kingston would sing, “That ain’t right.”

History has taught us that trade bans work to protect vulnerable species as well as related ecosystems.Policymakers united to ban the ivory trade in order to stop the depletion of elephants so they could remain on our planet for years to come. Although not perfect, since the ivory trade ban began, many elephant populations in Africa have been able to thrive. This type of legislation is not an attack on any group of people; it is about preventing the permanent elimination of an endangered species.

I commend Assembly members Paul Fong and Jared Huffman for authoring AB 376, which seeks to end California’s contribution to the shark fin trade, and the members of the Legislature from both sides of the aisle who have put aside their partisan blinders to work to pass this bill into law. This issue has brought together individuals like Yao Ming and businesses like Body Glove International along with dozens of environmental organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Nature Conservancy.

We all recognize the importance that sharks play in our ecosystem and that we have a responsibility to our children to leave the planet better than we found it. Increasingly, conservationists are looking for sustainable environmental solutions. Unfortunately, there are some things that a planet of 7 billion people just can’t do sustainably. Finning sharks is one of those things, and we just have to stop it.

—Text by Mike Sweeney, Cool Green Science Blog

Why shark finning should end
73 million sharks are killed every year, largely to meet the rising demand for shark fin soup. Can California help reverse this catastrophic loss?