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Shark Day 2011. 100 miles from the ocean, but the fate of the top predator of the oceans, key to the health of marine ecosystems, would be decided right here in Sacramento. The role I got to play on Shark Day was cutting off the tags that said “Made in China” from the small stuffed shark toys we were handing out. Such is the life of an intern. But I also got to watch close up as public policy was being made.
I was lucky enough to be an intern in the offices of the organization coordinating the lobbying for shark fin ban, Assembly Bill 376, and lucky enough to learn that the path to environmental protection can be a very strange one indeed.
I found myself calling every Jamba Juice in three counties (there are a lot more than one would think) to find one that had something other than the environmentally blacklisted Styrofoam cups, which we could never serve to the crowds of environmental activists who were descending on us by the hundreds. There was a class of fourth graders from a tiny school in Santa Barbara led by a teacher dressed head to toe in a shark costume—a costume which our more politically savvy lead lobbyist insisted be put instead on the cutest, tiniest little girl in the class. A suitable candidate was found and with the help of a dozen scavenged binder clips the suit was resized to fit our newest tiny lobbyist. There was the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s contribution—seven boxes of tiny stuffed sharks—that became my responsibility to de-nationalize.
But notwithstanding the trivial and sometimes ridiculous things we did, this bill was serious. Shark populations are declining at a rate unprecedented in human memory. This bill would have not only stopped shark finning in US waters, but also stopped the import and export of shark fins through California. Our state was a small consumer of shark fin itself, but the biggest traders were based right here in San Francisco and the shark fins they imported fed the markets of Hong Kong and Tokyo.
There was huge opposition to this bill, including from legislators who had been with us on dozens of previous environmental fights. Some of the Chinese-American legislators considered it an attack on their culture, in which shark fins are a delicacy to be enjoyed on the most special occasions. Shark fins equal money and a portion of that money had gone from the traders who sold shark fin to their favorite legislators over the years. I gave letters and alerts to dozens of legislators, making sure the right information got to the right people. The opposition had teams of highly-paid corporate lobbyists and what did we have? Ourselves, a dozen environmental groups, and a tiny little girl in a shark costume.
But California passed AB 376 and banned the importation and sale of shark fins. My participation in this little political fight may have been limited, but it let me see what can be done and give me a glimpse of what I would like to do. Being a small part of this effort meant a lot to me. And someone had to cut those tags off.
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