SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) --The first major prosecution under California's new shark fin ban is getting underway. The defendant appeared in San Francisco Superior Court Monday morning. But some activists who pushed for the law are not happy about how it's being used in this case.
Forty-two-year-old Michael Kwong was one of the most vocal opponents of the shark fin ban before it became law one year ago. Now he's the first major player to be prosecuted under it. Activists complain that for the amount of shark fins he had, Kwong got off easy.
Kwong's family has been in the business since 1906, selling shark fins to restaurants for shark fin soup. As he left court Monday morning, Kwong didn't want to discuss the criminal case against him.
Kwong pleaded not guilty and his lawyers said they'll challenge the constitutionality of the shark fin ban.
State wildlife officials said they found 2,138 pounds of shark fins at Kwong's San Francisco warehouse in January -- a full six months after the ban took effect.
It's a law Kwong knows very well. "My name is Michael Kwong. I'm the fourth generation in my family to be involved in shark fin business," he testified at the California Assembly on August 15, 2011.
Kwong was one of the law's most vocal opponents, appearing at hearings in Sacramento and at a news conference sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. "It's not cost effective just to go catch sharks. But when they do catch a shark, they're gonna use it," he said.
And now Kwong became the first major test of the new law, charged with four misdemeanors for possession or sale of:
Kwong was asked on Monday,"If you knew what the law was, why have all those shark fins, Michael?" He didn't answer.
The maximum penalty for each count is $1,000 and six months in jail, not nearly enough for some activists.
"We don't think this is right. We think this is grossly under done," Northern California Sea Shepherd coordinator Lincoln Shaw said.
Shaw is worried the punishment could simply be seen as a cost of doing business. He estimated that thousands of sharks died for Kwong to have more than a ton of shark fins in his warehouse.
"We believe that perhaps one per animal, one charge per animal, that would be a more equitable situation. We're talking about thousands of animals and here's a guy who's going to get a slap on the wrist for having something that's illegal," Shaw said.
"I completely understand their concern," San Francisco Defense Attorney's Office spokesperson Alex Bastian said.
The San Francisco District Attorney's Office defends the charging decision. "You have to look at the legislative intent and the legislative intent is pretty clear it makes it a misdemeanor offense. There is no way to elevate the punitive end of it to a felony," Bastian said.
Assem. Paul Fong, D-San Jose wrote the shark fin ban. "It's working, it's working like we intended it to work," he said.
Fong points out that, in addition to the possible criminal penalties, Kwong lost his supply of shark fins that are worth $1 million or more on the black market.
"I'm satisfied with that because the whole intention of the shark fin ban was to bring awareness of the sharks' plight and the need for sharks in our ocean's ecosystem," Fong said.
The latest research from the journal "Marine Policy" said 100 million sharks die each year for shark fin soup. Often, crews lop off the fins and dump the shark back into the ocean to bleed to death or drown. As a result, several species of shark are on the verge of extinction.
"Sharks are vitally important to the world's oceans, they're in every ocean in the world, they're usually the top predator, they keep the ocean healthy and if we lose them, we can have all kinds of problems for other species down the line," WildAid spokesperson Peter Knights said.
Knights is waging a campaign from his San Francisco office to cut the demand in China for shark fin soup using basketball star Yao Ming.
"If you could see how each year, up to 70 million sharks are killed to end up in soup, could you still eat it?" asked a WildAid commercial.
Knights said it's working. "Now in China, they're saying a 50-70 percent reduction in consumption of shark fin which is literally millions of sharks, tens of millions of sharks," he said.
Knights said the Chinese government provided spots on prime-time TV to run his ads, and they've banned shark fin soup from all official dinners.