After a robust debate between environmentalists and some Chinese-American groups, come Monday shark fin soup or anything made with shark fins can no longer be sold in California.
The ban comes two years after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making it illegal to "possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute" any shark fin statewide after Sunday -- a move cheered by conservation groups as a way to boost ocean health, but one that has jolted the Asian community culture with its centuries-old tradition of serving shark fin soup at weddings, banquets and other ceremonial events.
Under the new law, Chinese restaurants that sell shark fin soup, or markets that sell dried shark fins, will face fines of up to $1,000 per violation in California if they continue to offer them for sale.
"We've been working with restaurant owners and the Chinese communities throughout the state to educate them about the ban since the beginning of the year," said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The warning period is over and citations will most likely be issued."
The idea behind the law, which was sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is to reduce demand for shark fins.
"It's really great news for the oceans. It's long overdue," said Ken Peterson, a spokesman for the aquarium. "It's inspired a lot of other states to do the same."
Millions of sharks are killed each year worldwide, sometimes by fishing crews in international waters that cut off their fins and then throw the sharks, still alive, back into the ocean, where they painfully bleed to death.
But two organizations, the Burlingame-based Asian Americans for Political Advancement, and the San Francisco Chinatown Neighborhood Association, sued last year in federal court in San Francisco to block the law. They claimed it discriminates against Chinese-Americans because it prohibits cultural uses of shark fins.
They lost the case in January, however, when U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton said it failed to raise enough "serious questions" to merit a suspension of the law.
The groups plan to appeal, and the case should be heard by August, said Taylor Chow, president of Asian Americans for Political Advancement.
"Most of the stores and restaurants have gotten rid of their inventory," said Chow. "It makes them feel sad. It makes them recall the Chinese Exclusion Act. When there is a problem, society tries to blame minorities."
But supporters of the law note it was supported by some people of Chinese descent, including chef Martin Yan, basketball player Yao Ming, and most notably, Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, who wrote the law.
"Chinese-Americans and Chinese people are not of one mind on shark fins," said Peterson. "There are a lot who understand that having healthy shark populations are important to having healthy oceans."
Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Delaware, Illinois, New York and Maryland -- along with Guam, American Samoa, and Northern Mariana Islands -- have all passed similar bans on shark fin sale and possession. A similar bill was defeated in May in the Texas Legislature.
Environmental groups are alarmed by a draft proposal released recently by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would forbid state bans, and say they plan to fight it.
Cutting the fins off sharks in U.S. waters has been illegal since 2000, when President Bill Clinton banned it. But in most states, including California until now, it has been legal to sell shark fins if they are imported from other countries.
Chow noted that hundreds of sharks are caught legally every year, and eaten, in U.S. waters. Under California's new law, he said, their fins won't be able to be sold anywhere statewide. Also, he noted, millions of sharks are killed in gill nets accidentally and by other fishing practices worldwide that have nothing to do with shark finning.
"A lot of us don't eat shark fin soup or rarely eat it," he said. "But we have all been blamed for cruelty and barbaric practices. That's not fair."
Regardless, California is the world's second largest market for shark fins, said Jennifer Fearing, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, which supports the law. And the best way to end demand is for large markets to stop allowing a product to be sold.
"It's very similar to ivory elephant tusks," she said. "To stop poaching and eliminate the value of ivory, you have to devalue it, and this law puts a value of zero on shark fins."
Vicky Ching, owner of Ming's Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto, said she removed shark fin soup last year from her menu. The soup can fetch $60 or more a bowl. Some Chinese restaurants in California will lose money on the ban, she said, but her restaurant probably won't.
"When we were selling it, we had some people say "I'm not going to patronize your restaurant if you keep selling it,'" she said.
"It's a very important dish for the traditional wedding banquets. But our customers here in Palo Alto are younger and more Americanized, so before the law passed, I had young people who wanted to change shark fin soup for something else."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn.