The state Assembly came to the defense Monday of endangered sharks targeted by fishermen who amputate their fins then toss the live sharks back into the ocean.
The Assembly approved AB376, which bans the sale, trade or possession of shark fins, a delicacy that costs hundreds of dollars a pound and is used to create a soup that is popular among some Asians.
The bill passed 63-8 with bipartisan support and opposition. Its author, Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, and other supporters say the sharks are mutilated and the practice puts them at risk of extinction, which would wreak havoc on underwater ecosystems.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-Marin, who co-authored the bill, said shark populations have been on the decline for two decades.
"The science is unambiguous: Sharks are in trouble," he said.
Critics of the bill countered that there are sufficient federal protections in place.
Finning is illegal in U.S. waters, but lawmakers can do nothing about the practice in international waters. Huffman said that's why they went after the market for shark fins in California, which has the highest demand for shark fins outside Asia.
Oregon is taking up a similar measure, as is China, Huffman added.
Shark fin soup can cost $80 a bowl, while shark fins can sell for $600 a pound. Advocates say the finning industry kills 73 million sharks each year.
AB376 touches on a politically and culturally sensitive debate, because some Asian groups have been eating the soup for millennia to mark special occasions. The controversy has drawn the likes of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming to publicly support outlawing use of the fins.
Some opponents say said the legislation goes too far in dictating what Californians can eat.
"This bill would be the first bill to ban a California food product," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, who voted against it.
Others said the legislation doesn't go far enough, because the rest of the shark can still legally be sold in California if its fins are removed.
Fong responded that 95 percent of shark meat is worthless, so his bill focuses on the body part most coveted by fishermen.
He amended the bill last week to give businesses an extra year to comply, but Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park, said it still hurts small business.
The legislation, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2013, now goes to the Senate for consideration.