Turtle Frog for sale
Asian American politicians and merchants are seething over a new state ban on the importation of live turtles and frogs for sale as food, saying the policy unfairly targets Chinese businesses while ignoring the pet shop industry.
The California Fish and Game Commission adopted the ban last month to prevent people from releasing nonnative species into the state's sensitive habitats. But opponents point out that merchants - who hawk fish and other seafood as well as turtles and frogs for people to eat - are already barred from selling the animals alive.
On Tuesday, six Asian American state legislators, including Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and Sen. Leland Yee, both Democrats from San Francisco, sent a letter to the commission asking it to reconsider the policy.
A "disturbing" part of the policy, they wrote, is that it "appears to disproportionately target Asian American owned businesses, " - businesses, they note, that are largely owned and managed by first-generation immigrants.
Ma said frog legs, turtle soup and other dishes are popular at both Chinese restaurants and homes. But the immigrant community is not as politically savvy as other groups, she said.
"These minority markets have had this practice for hundreds of years, and all of a sudden the commission comes up with this policy - I understand the nonnative species concern, but they don't ban the importation of fish and frogs at pet stores, " she said. "There's no ban on importing crabs, oysters and lobsters, and clearly you can buy those live and release them into the ocean ... I think they just want to pick on the weakest link."
The state Department of Fish and Game requires wholesalers who import live frogs and turtles for consumption to obtain annual permits. Under the change, wholesalers can continue importing the animals and delivering them to stores until their permits expire.
Sonke Mastrup, deputy director of Fish and Game, said the agency issued 49 such permits in 2009 and only about 14 so far this year. The last permit won't expire for at least nine months.
On Wednesday, a group of merchants from San Francisco's Chinatown attended the commission's regularly scheduled meeting in Stockton to protest the ban. They warned of layoffs of market employees, and asked the commission to respect their cultural heritage.
"We don't let any turtles and frogs into the wild - we have to kill them before they leave our store, " said Paul Lee, who has owned a fish market in San Francisco for 30 years. "The Health Department comes into our store and checks how we handle frogs and how we prepare turtles."
After hearing from the merchants Wednesday morning, Commission President Jim Kellogg promised that the body would reconsider the new policy at a future meeting, citing both the legislators' request and the public testimony. But the commission will likely also hear from animal welfare advocates, who for years have pushed for an outright ban on importing frogs and turtles for any reason.
Madeline Bernstein, president of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said pet stores still pose a problem. But she said something is better than nothing, and accused the food industry of "torturing" the turtles and frogs while they are being imported and after they get to Asian markets.
"Pets stores are still a huge problem, but the markets have their own issues regarding animal cruelty and illegal imports, " she said. "The Asian community promised to be good, and abide by the rules, and there is case after case of that not happening ... the animals are not fed, not cared for, and the soft turtles are being flayed alive."
Pius Lee, a leader in San Francisco's Chinatown who has worked on issues pertaining to live animals at Asian markets for more than a decade, flatly rejected accusations of cruelty. He said the community has worked with state leaders to craft laws and regulations such as those prohibiting cruel treatment, requiring that the animals be killed at the markets so they cannot be released in the wild, and mandating the posting of signs warning customers not to release turtles or frogs.
"It was unfair to pass this without notifying small merchants in Chinatown and throughout the state, " he said. "There's no proof they are getting released into the wild, we've seen no violations by Chinatown merchants. They obey the law because they know if they don't, the state will ban importation."