By Greg Lucas
SACRAMENTO, Calif (Reuters) - Shark fin soup will disappear from the Golden State's menu in January 2013 under legislation signed into law on Friday by California Governor Jerry Brown.
Strongly supported by environmentalists, the bill bans the sale, purchase or possession of the ocean-going predator's fins. But restaurants can continue to serve any existing stock of shark fin until 2013.
"The practice of cutting the fins off of living sharks and dumping (the carcass) back in the ocean is not only cruel, but it harms the health of our oceans," Brown said in a signing statement.
"Researchers estimate that some shark populations have declined by more than 90 percent, portending grave threats to our environment and commercial fishing. In the interest of future generations, I have signed this bill."
Besides environmental groups, the ban is supported by actor-activist Leonardo DiCaprio and several celebrity Asian chefs who note that California is one of the largest consumers of shark fin outside of Asia.
Opponents countered that no species of shark is listed as endangered in the United States and that such a ban is a slap at the state's 1.1 million Chinese-Americans for whom the pricey delicacy is a traditional accompaniment to special occasions like weddings.
The lucrative market for shark fin, which can sell for upwards of $600 per pound, has increased the practice of "finning" -- sawing off shark fins and leaving the maimed shark to bleed to death.
To blunt opposition, the ban was accompanied by a separate bill, also signed by Brown, clarifying that the anti-finning measure does not outlaw conventional shark fishing in California.
In January, President Obama signed legislation tightening an 11-year-old ban on finning in federal waters.
The ban legislation -- authored by Assemblyman Paul Fong, a Mountain View Democrat -- split the state Legislature's Asian delegation, with some embracing the environmental goals and others denouncing it as cultural discrimination.
California joins Hawaii, Oregon, Washington state and Guam in banning shark fin sales.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)