Two Asian-American groups have challenged the state’s shark fin ban in a federal lawsuit in San Francisco, claiming it discriminates against Chinese Americans because it blocks cultural uses of shark fin soup.
“It discriminates against people of Chinese national origin by targeting and suppressing ancient cultural practices unique to people of Chinese national origin,” the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday by the San Francisco-based Chinatown Neighborhood Association and the Burlingame-based Asian Americans for Political Advancement.
It names California Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Fish and Game Department Director Charlton Bonham as defendants.
The law, enacted as AB 376 last fall, bans possession and sale of shark fins that are detached from shark bodies. It went into effect Jan. 1, but contains an exception allowing restaurants and individuals to use or sell previously legally obtained fins until July 1, 2013.
The purpose of the law, according to the Legislature’s wording, is to “help ensure that sharks do not become extinct as a result of shark finning.”
Shark finning is the practice of catching a shark, cutting off the fins, and throwing the body of the fish back into the water to die.
The lawsuit says shark fin soup is “a ceremonial centerpiece of traditional Chinese banquets” and is used in celebrations of weddings, birthdays of elders and festivals such as Chinese New Year. Its use dates back to the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit contends the alleged cultural discrimination against Chinese-Americans violates the U.S. constitutional guarantee of equal treatment.
It also claims the state law is superseded by a federal law that bans shark finning.
At a news conference in San Francisco’s Chinatown to announce the lawsuit, Colin Chen, an East Bay member of Asian Americans for Political Advancement, said, “This law is not a good law.
“It’s very divisive, targeting only the Chinese-Americans,” he said.
“Why are we being singled out?” Chen asked.
Former San Francisco Port Commissioner Pius Lee said, “AB 376 discriminates against Chinese Americans, because it does not allow Chinese Americans to eat and drink shark fin soup.”
Joseph Breall, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he expects to file papers seeking a preliminary injunction against the law within the next few weeks, and said he expects “some resolution” of the case within six to eight months.
Linda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for Harris, said state officials had not yet received the lawsuit and said she could not comment.
Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, who co-sponsored the law, said in a statement that the law does not have discriminatory intent, but rather is aimed at stopping California from contributing to the worldwide decline in shark species.
“Action is necessary to protect these precious creatures, because without acting, we may be the generation responsible for wiping out a species that has been in existence for over 450 million years.
“We must play an active role in protecting and preserving our environment for the public good,” Fong said.
Fong noted that the law does not ban the possession and sale of a full shark carcass with the fin still attached.
He said shark fins sell for up to $600 per pound, whereas the remainder of a shark is usually worth no more than a total of $100.
“This economic distortion drives traders to kill as many sharks as possible for their fins” and leave sharks whose fins have been detached “to die cruel and horrible deaths in the water,” Fong said.
A similar lawsuit was filed by a group called the Asian American Rights Committee of California, whose members are primarily shark fin suppliers, in San Francisco Superior Court in late January.
That lawsuit is scheduled for a case management conference on Aug. 15. A motion by state attorneys for dismissal of the Superior Court case is pending.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News