Miles Young strode down a narrow passageway in a bustling Chinatown fish market, methodically scanning aquariums and plastic bins filled with hundreds of live frogs selling for $3.99 a pound.
They were imported from frog farms in Taiwan, the environmental activist and former game warden said.
The species is particularly susceptible to a skin fungus linked to vanishing amphibians around the world. And the conditions in which bullfrogs are raised, transported and sold are ideal breeding grounds for the fungus and its waterborne zoospores.
“It should be against the law to bring diseased nonnative animals into California,” he grumbled. “But every time someone proposes a ban on bullfrogs, politics gets in the way and nothing gets done.”
Bullfrogs carry the fungus but do not die from it. Most of the millions of bullfrogs imported to California each year for use in the food, pet and dissection trades are infected with the fungus, according to several recent studies.
The disease can spread to native frog populations if an infected frog escapes captivity or is set free, or if the water from its holding tank is released into the environment.
Yet, proposals to ban the importation of bullfrogs have cultural implications, which have pitted environmental organizations against Asian Americans who regard the animals as traditional cuisine and important commodities for family-owned businesses. A similar rift opened recently over banning the sale of shark fins.
The state Fish and Game Commission, which sets policy for the Department of Fish and Game, voted to ban permits authorizing importation of frogs and turtles. The department has chosen not to implement the ban.
The squabble started in March 2010, when the commission voted unanimously to direct the department to stop issuing permits for the importation of live frogs and turtles for food. A month later, however, it held a “reconsideration hearing” at the request of Asian American leaders who included five Assembly Democrats and state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who called the ban an assault on their cultural heritage.
In testimony before the panel, Yee, an unsuccessful candidate in the Nov. 8 San Francisco mayoral election, said, “For over 5,000 years, it has been the practice of both the Chinese community and the Asian American community to consume these particular animals. They are part of our staple. They are part of our culture. They are part of our heritage.”
Despite pleas, the Fish and Game Commission decided not to rescind its decision. But the department opted to continue issuing permits to import frogs and turtles. Stopping the importation of frogs and turtles for food was “a low priority for the use of the department’s very limited resources,” Department of Fish and Game Director John McCamman wrote in a memorandum to the commission earlier this year.
“This is about a cultural practice, and the department doesn’t like getting in the middle of those things,” commission executive director Sonke Mastrup acknowledged in an interview. “We may revisit it again. But we would have to find the political will to bite the bullet and actually change the law.”