Eastshore Elementary teacher Bill Brooks has racked up plenty of career highlights over the course of his 3o-plus years. But this one, he says, ranks near the top.
Over the summer, Brooks escorted a team of sixth-graders to Sacramento to lobby on behalf of a legislative bill aimed at outlawing the import and sale of shark fins in California. The trip represented the culmination of a broader campaign to protect sharks by raising awareness locally of what happens when their fins are harvested to make soup.
And that campaign paid off.
On Oct. 7, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 376, which makes it a crime to possess, sell, trade or distribute shark fins. The Eastshore students hailed the news.
“It’s one of the more unique things I’ve done,” Brooks said, “and things kind of came together to make it all happen.”
“I guess the main thing you could call it,” said student Chad Gibbon, “is life-changing.”
It all began last year with a class screening of a documentary called “Sharkwater” that sheds light on some of the darker aspects of the shark-hunting industry. As Brooks’ sixth-graders learned, sharks are often caught and stripped of their fins to make shark fin soup, a delicacy in some cultures. Unfortunately, the practice marks the end for the captured sharks, which are usually dumped back into the ocean without the ability to swim, meaning they can’t take in oxygen through their gills.
Sharks may not be the cuddliest things in the sea, and “Jaws” didn’t do them any favors PR-wise, but the animals are important, says Chad, a former Eastshore student who is now a seventh-grader at Lakeside Middle School.
“They make a lot happen in the ocean,” the 13-year-old said. “Without sharks, the whole ecosystem would be messed up, sort of like the animal kingdom without lions.”
With that as their motivation, Chad and his classmates sunk their teeth into the issue for a regional science contest called the QuikSCience Challenge — and they placed second. But they didn’t stop there.
Over the next several months, the class charted a course of advocacy and awareness. They started their own website and backed an Assembly bill that was already winding its way through the Legislature. Then they teamed up with Judy Ki, co-chair of the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance, which co-sponsored AB 376 along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In August, Quicksilver stepped in to pick up the tab for a student trip to Sacramento, and by that time the bill authored by Assemblymen Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) had cleared the Assembly and was awaiting a vote in the Senate. Brooks said about a dozen of his kids — in conjunction with Team Kids, a local nonprofit group — received a crash-course on lobbying before meeting with seven senators, including Irvine’s own Tom Harman.
The Eastshore crew even brought their own shark costume to draw attention to their message. The students took turns wearing it — as did Mr. Brooks.
Yahel Michael, 13, said he and his classmates learned a thing or two about the art of persuasion along the way.
“I found that if you start off with an interesting fact that makes sharks seem less scary — like that more vending machines kill people than sharks — it kind of takes away from the whole ‘Jaws’ thing and makes people think about sharks in a different way,” he said.
“It was amazing,” added Chad. “We got to talk to a lot of senators and senator representatives, and we definitely swayed some of their decisions. I know at least two of them who hadn’t even heard about the bill before we talked about it.”
Brooks said one state senator’s ninth-grade son was in the room for Eastshore’s presentation. When the lawmaker began to backpedal on the issue, the boy took up the cause and talked his father into a “yes” vote.
“The Eastshore students were treated like adults,” said Brooks, “and they presented like adults.”
The bill was finally approved by the Senate on Sept. 6 — and with bipartisan support. Of the seven senators the Eastshore students spoke to, only one voted against it, according to Brooks.
On Oct. 7, Gov. Brown offered his endorsement by way of a signature, and AB 376 was officially law. Starting Jan. 1, no new shark fins will be allowed into California, and businesses will have until July 2013 to use those that are already here.
“I was going to school and my mom told me, and immediately I got really excited because that was our main goal with this project,” said Chad.
Yahel, who is also attending Lakeside this year, called it a “big moment, because we actually managed to change the law.”
“But it’s not over,” he added. “We still have, I think, 47 more states to go.”