By Greg Lucas
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - Shark fin soup would be off the menu in California, under a bill headed for the governor's desk following its approval by the state Senate on Tuesday.
The measure, which gained final passage on a bipartisan 25-9 vote, would ban the sale, purchase or possession in California of the ocean-going predator's fins, which are the chief ingredient in a soup dish that has long been part of Chinese culture.
The bill, approved by the state Assembly earlier this year, would take effect on January 1, 2013.
Bill supporters, including environmental groups, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and several celebrity Asian chefs, say the ban is needed to protect endangered shark populations from over-fishing. California, with its population of 1.1 million Chinese-Americans, is one of the biggest markets for shark fins outside Asia.
"(This bill) addresses an important environmental threat to our oceans' health," said state Senator Chris Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who was one of the bill's chief proponents. "It's our market here that drives the slaughter."
But opponents noted that no species of shark is listed as endangered in the Untied States. They said the measure also unfairly singles out a favorite dish of many Chinese-Americans, for whom the pricey delicacy is a customary culinary accompaniment to weddings and other special occasions.
They argue that the bill was inconsistent because it bans shark fins while allowing shark steaks to be sold, as well as apparel and other merchandise made from shark skin, such as boots, bags and belts.
"This bill goes out of its way to be discriminatory," said Senator Ted Lieu, a Democrat who represents the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance.
The lucrative market for shark fin, which can sell for upward of $600 per pound, has increased the practice of "finning," in which fishermen saw off shark fins and leave the maimed ocean predator to bleed to death.
In January, President Barack Obama signed legislation tightening an 11-year-old ban on finning in federal waters.
Authored by Assemblyman Paul Fong, a Democrat born in China, California's proposed ban split the state Legislature's Asian delegation.
Governor Jerry Brown has taken no position on the bill.
The Democratic governor has 12 days from the time it reaches his desk to sign or veto the measure, which automatically becomes law if he fails to act. In that case, California would join Hawaii, Oregon, Washington state and the U.S. territory of Guam in banning shark fin sales.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman)