Obama administration supports shark fin ban opponents in court

Fresh shark fins dry on the deck of an apprehended fishing boat in a declared shark and manta ray sanctuary located in the eastern region of Indonesia.

Conservation International/Getty Images

Fresh shark fins dry on the deck of an apprehended fishing boat in a declared shark and manta ray sanctuary located in the eastern region of Indonesia.

The Obama administration is supporting Chinese-American business organizations in their effort to block enforcement of California's ban on shark fin soup.

Opponents, led by San Francisco area Chinese restaurants and their suppliers, argued the case Wednesday before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

A state law that passed in 2011 but took effect last month, bans selling or serving of shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy. It was sponsored by conservation and animal-protection groups whose stated goals are to stop the cutting of fins from live sharks — a practice already banned in federal waters — and to protect consumers from mercury in the fins.

An estimated 73 million sharks are killed annually around the world for their fins, which often are cut from live animals, conservationists say.

But the Chinese-American organizations asking the federal court to block California's enforcement argue that the soup ban amounts to ethnic discrimination. The Obama administration says the state law interferes with federal law, which allows commercial shark fishing to continue while prohibiting the "finning" of live sharks.

Chinese-Americans are "the only community affected," Joseph Breall, lawyer for the Chinatown Neighborhood Association and Asian Americans for Political Advancement, told the appellate court in San Francisco.

He said statements by some legislative supporters of the 2011 measure showed intent to discriminate. For example, Breall said, one lawmaker observed that "we can't police the seas, but we can police Chinatown."

At least one member of the three-judge panel did not seem to be persuaded.

Judge Andrew Hurwitz noted that the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton, who in a Jan. 2 ruling left the law in effect, found that it was designed to promote conservation and public health, and there was no evidence of intentional discrimination.

"Why isn't that a finding that we have to give deference to?" Hurwitz asked.

The Obama administration opposes the law, arguing last month that it could shut down legal commercial shark fishing.

Although the federal law doesn't explicitly forbid such state regulation, Justice Department lawyers argued, it implicitly bars states from interfering with a healthy market for sharks that were legally caught.

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