On a single block of Stockton Street in San Francisco's Chinatown, no fewer than three markets sell bullfrogs. Continue wandering through the alleyways and you'll find scads more, piled in plastic tubs or hidden beneath goldfish aquariums. Signs in the windows say that all animals have to be killed on site, and a store clerk demonstrates how it's done: Smiling, he pantomimes an executioner's ax with his hand. "We cut the heads!" he says.
From there, the frogs go to restaurant platters and dinner plates throughout the city — breaded, stewed, or thrown in soups, and occasionally fried. A staple of Asian cuisine, frogs simmer on many stoves in San Francisco, where Asian-Americans comprise roughly a third of the city's polyglot culture.
They also constitute a huge threat to the local environment, according to Michael Starkey, a staunch Oakland-based conservationist and adviser to the amphibian advocacy group, Save the Frogs! "These guys are ambush predators," Starkey says, noting that the breed commonly found in Chinatown eateries — the American bullfrog — will eat everything from bats to house sparrows to 33-inch garter snakes. Though native to the East Coast, it's more commonly shipped from factory farms in Brazil or Taiwan, sometimes carrying a virulent, water-born fungus that coats its entire skin.
"With globalization," Starkey says, "people have transported this fungus all over the world." While innocuous to humans, the disease spreads rapidly among amphibians, and could drive many local species to extinction.
For two-and-a-half years, Starkey and other ecologists have campaigned for an embargo in California, hoping American bullfrogs will go the way of shark fins and foie gras. They've spoken in classrooms, delivered newsletters, and confronted politicians who see the frogs as an important cultural totem in San Francisco. When the California Department of Fish and Wildlife enacted a similar ban in 2010, it faced opposition from Assemblyman Paul Fong and Sen. Leland Yee, among others. Many of their constituents live in the neighborhoods where frogs are sold and consumed.
"It was narrowly imposed on live-food markets, and it unfairly targeted the Asian-American community," a spokeswoman from Fong's office says, acknowledging that Fish and Wildlife repealed the rule after just a few months. She's unsure how Fong would react if a similar rule were introduced next year, but "it would have to be closely examined."
Undeterred, Starkey is circulating an online petition for yet another bullfrog fatwah. He hopes it will quietly plow through the Legislature and wind up on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, where it has a good chance of getting signed — especially in light of this year's shark-fin ban. Frogs might be the next political battle in San Francisco, Starkey says. One if by land, two if by sea.