U.S. District Court Upholds California Shark Fin Law

Credit: Cartoon by Tom Meyer, reprinted with permission.

Good news!  Today the U.S. District Court upheld a California state law that bans the sale, possession, and trade of shark fins.

If your first reaction was “huh?” then let me remind you why this is important.

Sharks are apex predators in ocean ecosystems, and they play a crucial role in maintaining balanced population levels for species lower down the food chain. Unfortunately, humans are killing sharks.  Lots of them.  Like up to 100 million per year, according to recent estimates.  Sharks also are long-lived and have few offspring, which means they can’t reproduce fast enough to keep up with this slaughter.  So a number of shark populations are declining, and some have even been added to the IUCN red list as endangered species.

Why do humans kill so many sharks?  Their fins command a high price in certain markets—largely in Asia—making them an incredibly profitable target for fishermen.  In the United States, shark fisheries are regulated by the government, but in many countries there’s only weak management and sharks often can be slaughtered with no oversight or regulation.  The same is generally true on the high seas.

Given the high price for fins and lack of effective regulation in many areas, one of the only tools for slowing the slaughter of sharks is to ban the sale and possession of fins. By doing this, a state or country can close its doors as an end-use market for sharks, and gradually reduce demand.  With reduced demand, the market price for fins goes down, and fishermen have less incentive to go out and catch sharks.  Indirect, yes, but it’s one of the few ways of getting a handle on the problem.

California passed a fin ban in 2011, after a hard-fought campaign in the legislature. Governor Brown signed the bill into law, immediately making some big toothy friends:

The following year, though, a group of shark fin traders and retailers filed a lawsuit claiming that the ban was unconstitutional.  They asked the court for a preliminary injunction—basically a freeze on the law—and outlined their arguments.  First, they claimed the California fin ban discriminated impermissibly against Chinese-Americans and thereby violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Second, they argued that the California law excessively burdened interstate commerce, in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Third, they claimed federal fisheries laws preempted the California fin ban.

On January 2, 2013, the court denied plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, rejecting all of their arguments.  Plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but were denied again.  This left them in a strange situation—the courts had looked at their arguments and, at least in the quick initial review that occurs with a request for preliminary injunction, rejected them, but the case was still alive and plaintiffs had the option to continue moving forward.  Over the next few months, the plaintiffs made clear that they intended to keep pressing their case, so the state defendants (represented by a very capable attorney at the California Attorney General’s office) and the intervenor-defendants (who included the Humane Society and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, also well-represented by their attorneys) filed motions to dismiss the case.

A motion to dismiss means that the defendant is challenging the plaintiff by essentially saying, “Even if all of your factual allegations are true, it still doesn’t add up to enough to meet the legal standard.”  If the defendant can convince the court of this, then the case gets dismissed.  This makes sense because there’s simply no need to proceed further—the plaintiffs still lose, even if everything they say happened really did happen.

You can probably see from this structure that motions to dismiss are designed to sort out merely speculative lawsuits from lawsuits where there’s really an issue that needs to be investigated.  They’re hard to win, but when you do win them, it’s a strong statement—it means there really wasn’t anything there, in the plaintiffs’ claims.

Having read this far, you’re now situated to understand what it means that today, the court granted a motion to dismiss in the lawsuit challenging California’s fin ban.  It means the court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments, saying that that even if all of the plaintiffs’ factual allegations were true, they still would not add up to a legal victory.  That’s huge. It’s also the right outcome, as a matter of legal reasoning (I’ll explain this in a separate post tomorrow).

This is great news for the sharks, and for shark advocates, since it clears the way for more states to use fin bans to reduce demand and slow the worldwide slaughter of these magnificent animals.  

Credit: Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, via Creative Commons