California will take steps to ban the importation and sale of bullfrogs, halting century-old commerce that has introduced deadly disease to the state’s native frogs.
The decision, which ends a battle over animals that are traditional cuisine in the Bay Area’s Asian communities, will take time to implement. It is part of a much larger strategy to manage problems caused by the invasive frog, with its huge leap and dangerous appetite.
“It’s exciting to be moving forward, finally, to try to walk back the damage that’s been caused by bullfrogs,” said Erika Zavaleta, an ecology professor at UC Santa Cruz and co-chair of the California Fish and Game Commission, which sets policy for the state’s Department of Fish and Game and voted on Wednesday to start work on regulatory and legislative steps to fend off the importation and sale of the frog.
The step echoes California’s 2011 ban of the sale of shark fins, a delicacy in a traditional Chinese soup.
The fat, aggressive and often disease-carrying frog, with a basso “jug-o’-rum” call, is native to the eastern U.S. but is raised for commerce in frog farms in China, Taiwan, Brazil and other countries. Every year, an estimated two million live bullfrogs are shipped into California for use as food.
In San Francisco’s Chinatown shops, frogs pile up in large gray plastic bins of water selling for $7.50 to $7.99 a pound.
The animals are not allowed to be released into the wild — but they escape. Surveys show that the species has been introduced in more than 40 countries and four continents.
Millions of bullfrogs live in ditches, canals and ponds across California.
They are vexing trespassers. Even as California spends large sums of money to protect populations of threatened native frogs, such as yellow-legged and red-legged species, bullfrogs are devouring and displacing them.
Bullfrogs also carry a lethal chytrid fungus, called Batrachochytrium dendrobatdis, that is contributing to the decline of native frog species. Bullfrogs carry the fungus but do not die from it. The fungus breeds in the water of their holding tanks, and spreads if released into the environment.
The state is following in the footsteps of Santa Cruz, which made history in 2012 as the first county in the nation to ban bullfrogs. It stopped sales in pet stores, although wild populations continue to grow, according to Chris Berry, watershed compliance manager for the City of Santa Cruz. And the county’s native frogs are still vulnerable to encroachment by bullfrogs from surrounding counties.
The states of Oregon and Washington also prohibit bullfrogs. While effective, this has not eradicated the problem. Wildlife officials say there is still importation through online sellers, particularly from Florida. Bullfrogs also enter the states as tadpoles, inadvertently included in shipments of aquatic plants.
At a Dec. 13 meeting, the California commissioners voted to support eight different anti-bullfrog policy proposals. In addition to banning the import and sale, they urged greater funding for enforcement efforts, as well as eradication projects in sensitive habitats.
The commission’s vote would also require the execution of bullfrogs that are not kept by contestants after jumping contests, such as the famed Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee, an Angels Camp competition that started 95 years ago to honor a Mark Twain short story.
The Santa Clara-based bullfrog “Claire de Pond,” owned by the computer software professional Brad Guzules, was victorious in this year’s contest, jumping a remarkable 18 feet, four inches.
But the commissioners stopped short of taking more rigorous steps against the contests, such as swapping bullfrogs for other species or even banning the contests.
Bullfrogs will not be added to the state’s “restricted species” list, according to the commission. A ban on frog transport and possession was thought to be overly restrictive; limits could be achieved through a ban of imports.
The state did not say when it would pull the permits needed by food shops to buy and sell the frogs.
The issue has been debated by the commission for more than a decade, but faced political opposition from the Chinese community. An earlier ban on the issue of permits was abandoned after a “reconsideration hearing” at the request of Asian American leaders who included five Assembly Democrats and former state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.
The earliest record of frogs being eaten in China dates back to the Ming dynasty that reigned from the 14th to the 17th century. Since then, many dishes use the meaty delicacy. In China, there’s a chain of more than 180 Kungfu Froggy restaurants.
The SF Chinatown Merchants Association and Asian Food Trade Association did not respond to requests for comment. But in previous testimony, Yee, who represented parts of San Francisco and the Peninsula, defended importation of bullfrogs for sale.
“It has been the practice of both the Chinese community and the Asian American community to consume these particular animals,” Yee said. “They are part of our staple. They are part of our culture. They are part of our heritage.”
According to the commission’s vote, frozen bullfrogs could still be sold. But the frozen variety are considered unpalatable, according to commission’s wildlife adviser Ari Comman, who met with representatives of the Chinese community.
“The freshness of the bullfrog is a really important component of the food,” he said, and offers “a connection to the homeland…There is a cultural aspect to it.”
The decade-long negotiations frustrated wildlife advocates, who applauded Thursday’s vote and urged funding for enforcement.
Eric Mills of the Oakland-based group Action for Animals blamed the delay on ” ‘political correctness’…and profits.”
The vote “is exactly what we wanted them to do,” said Kerry Kriger of the amphibian organization Save The Frogs. “A ban of the sale and importation of bullfrogs is one of the best ways to help California’s native wildlife.”
“Simply stopping the frogs’ entrance into the state,” he said “is going to be a big huge boost for amphibian conservation efforts.”
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