I recently completed a 4,950-mile Oregon-to-Washington, D.C., bicycle ride called Spinning to End Finning.
The purpose of the campaign was to raise money, but especially to raise awareness of the indiscriminate slaughter of the worlds sharks for their fins. Along the way, we spoke with countless folks from storekeepers and farmers to truckers and waitresses and to children and their parents about the booming trade in shark fins. Sharks, we told them, are hauled up on the decks of fishing vessels by the tens of thousands every night where they are de-finned while still alive to make a Chinese delicacy called shark fin soup.
The practice is brutal and cruel, enormously wasteful, and unsustainable. It threatens the very existence of a functioning ocean ecosystem upon which all life on Earth depends. Our ride culminated with a visit to Rep. Lois Capps, who lent us an attentive ear and promised her support in the fight to prevent the extinction of these animals.
In late June of this year, Assembly Bill 853 took effect. Passed in 2011, it bans the sale, possession and trade of shark fins in California, and primarily targets Chinese restaurants throughout the state where shark fin soup has been served for decades (similar bills have passed in five other states).
The restaurant owners, and some others, fought vigorously to oppose this bill, stating that it unfairly targets them and denies them their right to continue the tradition of serving shark fin. Now, the Obama administration has weighed in on the side of restaurant owners and is seeking to overturn the ban. It is understandable that some people feel discriminated against over this bill; after all, shark fin soup has been served throughout Asia for centuries. But the ban on selling and consuming shark fin soup must remain. Heres why: Sharks play a crucial role in the system that keeps the ocean ecosystem functioning. The ocean is a system a complex network of variables that, when working properly, operates smoothly and sustainably. Sharks play an absolutely crucial role in this system. Sharks have a global distribution, and having existed in the ocean for nearly 400 million years, essentially every other creature in the ocean is affected by, and reliant on their existence.
Remove sharks from the ocean ecosystem, and you dramatically threaten the very functioning of this system that produces much of the worlds food, not to mention more than 60 percent of the oxygen we breathe. Sharks, although we fear them for their efficiency as predators, are vital to the health of the oceans, and the time has come to end the practice of consuming them for their fins.
It may seem unfair to see the end of this Asian tradition, but some things simply are no longer possible. Fifty years ago, our ancestors were able to lay claim to 160 acres of free land through the Homestead Act. Much as we would like to do that today, it is no longer possible.
There was a time when you could buy a quarter-acre view lot in Sausalito for $10,000, but those times are gone. There was even a time when a loaf of bread was less than a dollar, and gas was 40 cents a gallon, but no longer.
And even though it seems unfair to restaurant owners and people who have benefited from the serving of shark fin, this practice, too, must end. Whose rights are more deserving of protection the restaurant community and their few customers who serve and eat shark fin soup, or the rest of the human family, and even the rest of life on Earth, who depend on healthy oceans for their very existence?
Mark DiMaggio teaches earth and environmental sciences and biology at Paso Robles High School. He lives in Cambria with his wife and daughter.