Shark Fin Soup off the Menu in Hawaii

Hawaii has become the first U.S. state to officially prohibit the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins. On May 28, Governor Linda Lingle signed the shark-finning ban into law after the bill passed the state House and Senate with broad support.

Hawaii restaurants that serve shark fin soup have until July 1, 2011 to use up existing inventory. After that date, those caught with fins will pay fines of up to $15,000 for a first offense, $35,000 for a second offense, and $50,000 and a possible year in prison for a third offense.

Some members of the sizable Chinese community in Hawaii opposed the measure, considering it an infringement on a cultural tradition. Senator Clayton Hee, sponsor of the bill and himself of Chinese and Native Hawaiian descent, rejected this argument. Senator Hee points out that consuming the soup is not, historically, a widely practiced tradition but rather an indulgence, customarily eaten by the wealthy at special events.

The once modest trade in shark fins, in fact, has grown alarmingly in recent years alongside an exploding, status-conscious Chinese middle class. An estimated 73 million sharks are killed yearly for the fin trade alone. Because the fins are highly prized while shark meat is not, sharks are often hauled up only to have their fins sliced off, after which the still living shark is tossed overboard to suffer and die.

Marie Levine, director of the Shark Research Institute, calls the new law a "landmark." Conservationists hope it will inspire other states and the federal government to follow Hawaii’s lead and put an end to this unsustainable and inhumane activity.