SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge on Wednesday denied an attempt to delay implementation of California's law banning shark fin soup, dealing a blow to Chinese restaurant owners and community advocates who argue that the ban is discriminatory and harmful to cultural traditions.
U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled that there is little likelihood of success for the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs had failed to raise enough "serious questions" to merit a suspension of the law, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2011. Chinese-American groups vowed to press on with the lawsuit, though the court's opinion bodes well for advocates of animal rights.
"Sharks need their fins, and we don't," said Jennifer Fearing, California's senior director of the Humane Society of the United States. "The momentum to protect sharks globally has taken a huge leap forward."
Customers have forked over as much as $600 a pound to serve shark fin soup, a delicacy that's been treasured in Asian cultures since at least the 14th century Ming dynasty.
But the law forced retail shops, restaurants and small processing plants to deplete their entire stock of shark fins by the end of 2012, threatening that custom and sparking a split in the Chinese-American community.
Attorneys for the Humane Society, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation and the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance are helping California's attorney general defend the law.
"Finning" is a practice that involves slicing off the fins of a shark and discarding the animal at sea to drown or bleed to death, leading to steep declines in some shark populations.
The shark fin is gelatinous and nearly tasteless, but serving the soup is considered a sign of respect and status because it's such a luxury, costing as much as $100 a bowl.
The law was authored by a Silicon Valley assemblyman of Chinese descent, Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, in the face of tremendous opposition from Bay Area Chinese-American groups. Similar laws have been passed in Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon and Washington.
The court's opinion was "not a surprise to us," said Carl Chan, the organizer for Burlingame-based Asian Americans for Political Advancement, one of two groups that filed the lawsuit. The other is the San Francisco Chinatown Neighborhood Association.
"Shark food is only consumed by Chinese and Asians, so it's not as easy to make the argument because it's not impacting the general public," Chan said. "This law is almost like a new version of the Chinese Exclusion Act that singles out Chinese and Asian communities."
Chan noted that a Canadian judge in November struck down a Toronto law banning shark fin soup, ruling that the law had little municipal purpose since 95 percent of shark fins are consumed in China.
"Hopefully, over time, there will be more cases and more understanding," Chan said.