Man eats shark: With California on its way to banning shark fin, will Washington follow suit?

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

Underwater photo of sharks by underwater photographer Eric Cheng (Photos by Eric Cheng/echeng.com)

Certain restaurants in Hawaii are serving their last bowls of shark fin soup due to a newly enacted law, which requires restaurants to cook or dispose of their shark fin inventory. Shark fin soup, a Chinese dish once reserved for emperors, is now commonly eaten at weddings and ceremonies. Shark fin is cooked in a flavorful broth and served with strands of the fin mixed into a soup or with the entire fin intact. Prices can range anywhere from $10 to $100 per bowl.

Food of the emperors

“Shark fin soup was a treat growing up. We’d order it at restaurants when we were lucky enough to encounter it on a menu. It was infrequent. I remember enjoying the soup and recognizing that it was ‘special’ to be able to have it,” said Hsiao-Ching Chou, aa Chinese American and former food editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“The shark fin itself is more texture than flavor. The soup, if made right, is flavorful, even if the star ingredient doesn’t have much inherent flavor. The soup itself always reminded me of a richer egg drop soup containing gelatinous shreds of shark fin.”

Fins, prized for their scarcity, serve as a status symbol for the host. Traditionally, families would lose face if the soup wasn’t served at weddings. Similarly, chances of securing business deals could be jeopardized if the soup wasn’t served at business luncheons. For older generations, shark fin soup can also be a long awaited symbol of success and prosperity.

Harvested shark fin taken from sharks in the waters of Manta, in Ecuador

While demand for fins is highest in Hong Kong, China, and other Asian countries, shark fins are acquired and traded worldwide, including the United States. The rise of the middle class in China has also caused the rise in demand.

“You have a massive middle class in China. They woke up. They discovered Gucci and Prada and shark fin soup,” said Sue Chen, president and board chair of Reef Check and member of the Shark Savers board of directors. “That’s great for Gucci. They’re selling a lot more bags in China. But it’s not good for sharks.”

Washington tackles the demand

Chen started diving six years ago and encountered her first shark on a dive. She soon learned that such encounters were incredibly rare.

Manta fishermen with the day’s catch of shark fi

According to the Pew Environment Group, up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to support the global shark fin industry. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that a third of open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction. Chen, a full-time business-owner, decided to join efforts with activists to educate people about sharks.

Following Hawaii’s lead, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands passed laws to prohibit shark fin trade. Similar legislation banning the possession and distribution of shark fin was introduced in California to combat the source of large shark fin demand.

“With the demand as it is in California and the legislation moving forward there, it is critical that Oregon and Washington pass similar laws …” said State Sen. Kevin Ranker.

Ranker co-sponsored the bill. It passed unanimously out of the Senate and will head to the House of Representatives for further consideration. The Washington state bill prohibits all commercial sale, trade, or purchase of shark fins, including selling the product in restaurants. The Oregon legislature is considering a similar bill.

Ranker states the bill will limit the demand for shark fin and will work in tandem with the federal Shark Conservation Act passed in January 2011 — requiring sharks be brought to port with fins attached and prohibiting boats from carrying shark fins without the corresponding number and weight of shark carcasses — to discourage finning for commercial purposes.

While some countries are known to eat shark meat, the demand for meat did not match the international demand for shark fin. The demand led to increased finning, the act of cutting off the fins of sharks caught on the line or as bycatch. The finless sharks, often still alive, are tossed, where they die from suffocation, blood loss, or predation by other species.

California Sen. Leland Yee, who has fought other bills prohibiting live reptiles to be sold at markets and restrictions on roast duck and rice products, calls a state ban on commercial fin trade is too extreme. Yee asks for a moderate approach that allows the preservation of the traditional dish.

“I would support a bill that bans imported fins, takes the federal ban on finning, and makes it a state law [that includes] huge fines to serve as a deterrent and to incentivize our fish and game wardens. [I would also support a] ban on killing any endangered shark species, and allow non-endangered fins to be brought on shore or raised in a sustainable farm,” said Yee.

The proposed ban on shark fin trade in California drew emotional reactions from the Chinese. Some feel that the law unfairly targets ethnic cuisine. Others insist that concern for sustainability should take an equally critical look at proteins and seafood more commonly eaten in Western cultures.

“Certainly, since I moved to Seattle in 2000 and established myself as a food writer at the Seattle P-I, I’ve learned more about sustainability issues. I would not order shark fin soup now, but legislating a ban is a tough call when a dish is so ingrained in a culture. I think about the Makah tribe and their whale hunts. We, as non-Native Americans, are appalled that they would hunt a whale. But who are we to judge a native tradition?” said Chou, referring to the Makah’s annual whaling expeditions that draw criticism from animal rights activists and conservationists.

You are what you don’t eat?

“I don’t think it’s an Asian issue; I think it’s an education issue,” said Chen, who believes that when given the facts, most would agree to give up shark fin soup. Films like “Jaws” and an unwarranted fear of shark attacks have made the public less sympathetic to the plight of sharks, said Chen.

“I have spent hundreds of hours in water swimming with sharks and sometimes forget that people are afraid of them,” said Eric Cheng, an award-winning underwater photographer and member of Shark Savers board of directors. “Sharks are incredible predators, so the fear is somewhat understandable, but the vast majority of sharks have evolved to be fish eaters. These sharks are much more likely to be afraid of you than they are to get anywhere near you.”

The shark’s role as an apex predator means serious consequences will follow when shark population are wiped out, said Cheng. Sharks prey on sick or slow fish, thereby regulating the intricate food web and sensitive ecosystem. Unlike certain fish, sharks are not easily farmed or bred, and they take longer to mature. Their decline could cause the entire system to collapse, according to multiple studies. But consuming shark fin is not just unhealthy for sharks. The FDA lists sharks among the fish with the highest mercury content.

“As a proud Asian, it would be quite embarrassing when sharks go extinct. The world would say, ‘They were decimated because of a soup that Asians love so much,’ ” said Chen. “How would the world view Asians? It would be such a drastic contradiction from what is truly beautiful about Asian culture, which is harmony, modesty, accountability, and responsibility.”

The last bowl

Activists hope further awareness will lessen public demand for the soup, but those whose pocketbooks are directly affected — restaurant owners, fishermen, and dried seafood purveyors — are harder to convince.

“Local Chinese restaurants often say that they wouldn’t mind removing shark fin soup from their menu, but only if all other restaurants do. If only one restaurant removes it, it puts them at a potential disadvantage in the marketplace because there is still demand for the product,” said Cheng.

A disheartened dried seafood purveyor in San Francisco expressed concern that a ban on shark fin means that fish maw could be next. Fish maw and shark fin (along with abalone and sea cucumber) are among the four high-priced, treasured delicacies in Chinese cuisine, with shark fin in particular invoking a sense of pride, honor, celebration, and luxury.

However, many pro-ban advocates have argued that cultures are meant to evolve, rightfully phasing out a long list of traditions including foot binding or slavery. If they get their way, the last bowl of shark fin soup will soon be on that list. ♦

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.
Editor’s note: Some follow-up info from Oceana:

Washington House of Representatives passed a bill to protect sharks and ocean ecosystems by an overwhelming 95-1 vote on 4/5. This bill aims to protect shark populations by banning the illegal trade of shark fins in Washington.

12 Responses to “Man eats shark: With California on its way to banning shark fin, will Washington follow suit?”

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  2. Jennifer Lee says:

    As a Chinese advocate for marine conservation, I disagree with Senator Yee’s statement that the Californian shark fin ban opposes our Chinese tradition. Shark fin started off an emperor’s dish, inaccessible to commoners. The dish was only popularized in the last 30+ years, and we have already caused drastic declines in shark populations around the world.

    Calling the dish a part of our Chinese culture provides convenience for the tongue, but this statement is accurate only if you believe we are of royal blood.

    Other traditions such as feet binding and arranged marriages that have fallen with time because these no longer have a place on this day. While we take pride in our Chinese tradition, we need to bear in mind that the importance of cultural practices should not supersede the importance of maintaining sustainability.

  3. Bill Powers says:

    As a focus group of a 950+ member enviromental scuba group, the Shark Protectorate of San Diego heartily endorses this important legislation. Those of us who have been diving a long time absolutely know (from first hand observation) that our fish populations in general… and our shark populations in particular… are being decimated. The slow to mature, slow to reproduce nature of shark species mean their populations can not readily bounce back once their numbers dwindle. Let’s stop the cruel practice of finning (and the soup-eating it supports) now before it’s too late.

  4. J.R. LeMar says:

    I think someone needs to look into the campaigns of Senator Yee. This seems like such clear issue to get behind, that I can’t help but wonder the real reason why he’s so resistant to it (besides cheap racial politics)? I wonder is some lobbying group, or other organization, behind him?

  5. Yvonne Chu says:

    As a Chinese who grew up in Singapore and Hong Kong eating shark fin soup, I strongly support the ban on shark fin trade.

    Given that one-third of the species of oceanic sharks are already endangered just from the last 20-30 years of eating shark fin soup, it is obvious that if we don’t act soon, these sharks will soon become extinct. Once a species is gone, it’s gone forever. These are the bigger sharks, the apex predators, who play an important role in the ocean ecosystem.

    Come to think of it, shark fin soup (SFS) sounds too neutral. A better name would be: shark extinction soup (SES)

    I was amazed to see these friendly reef sharks who let people pet them. Kids would love this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slsIfINSKNU

    All the right legislation is in place for the Galapagos (shark fin exports are illegal, shark fishing is illegal, longlining is illegal) but shark populations continue to plunge. Schools of 300 or more hammerhead sharks are now rare, though visitors are happy to see 30.

    Senator Yee’s approach will ensure that illegal shark-finning will continue unabated. People are ingenious at finding ways to profit off of shark fins, and the state does not have resources to enforce his suggestions. The reasons that his approach doesn’t work have been presented to Senator Yee again and again since day one. Check out this 2/13 KQED forum on shark finning with Senator Yee’s representative Adam Keigwin: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201102160900 … And this 3/16 article: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/gyrobase/the-great-shark-slaughter/Content?oid=2519696&showFullText=true

    I’m guessing that Senator Yee fully understands these reasons and he simply has other agendas that trump protecting sharks from extinction. He’s not unintelligent. But perhaps he thinks his constituents are?

    I didn’t want to not vote for Senator Yee for mayor just because of this SES issue. Especially because as a minority myself who moved to the U.S. when I was 16, I understand the challenges of being a minority. And also because my parents are in business and they were very poor when I was young, I understand the difficulties of keeping a business afloat.

    However, I’m slowly losing faith in Senator Yee as being a leader with a strong vision for the future.

  6. Robert Hii says:

    Thanks for talking this up. As a Chinese Malaysian now residing in Canada, let me say that shark fin soup is not part of my culture and certainly something that I will not pass on to my two girls as part of their “heritage”

    Senator Yee should have done his homework before making loud noises and turning this into a race issue. I’ll bet anything that the 99% of us Chinese that can’t afford this dish, do not consider it a part of our culture. We do consider it an obnoxious status symbol for those with “too much money” looking to flaunt their wealth.

    As for his naive proposals up to this point, which included allowing non endangered species to continue in the trade and “farming” as you mention above, its obvious that his staff has not informed him that we are talking about big fish that swim in open oceans, not catfish or tilapia. Anyone with a bit of knowledge on the trade would also have known that the fins are taken off sharks period without regard for its status.With the harvests spanning from China to Africa, its absurd to even suggest that we can control what species are traded and which ones are banned.

    The only way to protect the species as a whole, is to ban the trade completely

  7. Judy Ki says:

    As a Chinese American, I grew up in a culture that reveres food and prides itself in its cuisine. But there is a dish I have long shunned, shark fin soup. The knowledge of the cruel practice of shark finning leaves a very bad taste in my mouth! The fact that the demand for shark fins for soup exacerbates shark finning and drives some shark species to extinction deeply troubles many Chinese Americans.

    Over 4,000 years of Chinese philosophy teaches us to live a virtuous, self-disciplined, and compassionate life, in harmony with nature. Many Chinese Americans stand united behind AB 376 in California, we see it as an environmentally and ecologically sound message.

    The proposed legislation is about saving sharks from the cruel fate of shark finning and protecting ocean ecosystems. Cruelty has no place in any culture, including my own. Thank you!

    Judy Ki
    Co-Chair APAOHA
    Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance

    • Bill Powers says:

      Well stated, Judi. All those who argue for shark fin soup eating as a “cultural heritage” issue are forgetting/ignoring the much larger Chinese cultural heritage cornerstone that emphasizes a harmony with nature, just as you state.

      Excellent point.

    • Hanamant says:

      to do it. She wanted to look buftuiael too! SHe whined. I lost my mind and started to scream. WHO GAVE YOU THE RIGHT TO GO THROUGH MY THINGS AND TAKE MY MAKEUP> YOU SHOULD ASK! YO MIGHT AS WELL TAKE ALL OF MY THINGS, AND DESTROY THEM BECAUSE ONE DAY THEY WILL ALL BE DESTROYED! But I said it in my head so noone but me heard it. I quickly snuck into my mom’s room and took her concealer, but it was darker then mine. It would have to do. I quickly rubbed it onto my face, and all the rashes were gone . but my skin looked a lot darker. then I realized I was close to being late for school! Dad quickly dropped me off and I got my picture taken. Hopefully it was OK!

  8. Eric Mills says:

    Thank you, Ms. Ran, for a well-written, nicely-balanced piece. This is truly a “no brainer,” it seems to most.

    It’s gratifying to see the broad support across ethnic lines for this effort to ban horrendous animal cruelty and to protect the ocean environment. Reportedly, we’ve already massacred 90% of the world’s population of sharks, throwing the marine environment into serious imbalance. This commerce in sharks (and fins) is not only brutal, it’s unsustainable. And morally indefensible.

    Just for the record, rumors to the contrary, shark fin soup is NOT an aphrodisiac, nor does it cure cancer. The fins are nothing but gristle and cartilage, bland-to-tasteless, and chewy. (The taste comes from the condiments and other contents of the soup.) You might as well eat Jello. And terribly over-priced, at that.

    California’s Assembly Bill 376, introduced by Assemblymember Paul Fong (himself of Chinese descent) recently passed the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee unanimously, by a vote of 13:0. It is expected to do equally well in Assembly Appropriations on April 6. (SUPPORT EMAILS: assemblymember.fuentes@assembly.ca.gov)

    As for San Francisco Senator Leland Yee, he’s long been a strong advocate for animals and the environment, but he’s wrong on this one (and in a VERY small minority at that). Mr. Yee’s proposal may sound good, but it’s unenforceable–too much money involved. California has only 192 game wardens in the field (the worst ratio in the nation), and looking for shark fins would not be a top priority. It’s also impossible to monitor all the fishing fleets world-wide who take part in this bloody business. (Relatedly, Mr. Yee is also wrong on the frog/turtle live market issue–they’re all diseased and/or parasitized, putting at risk those who eat them.) Keep in mind, too, that the Senator is running for Mayor of San Francisco, so there are other issues at play here.

    SAVE THE SHARKS! And in doing so, we’ll help protect the oceans, maybe even save ourselves.

    Sincerely,
    Eric Mills, coordinator
    ACTION FOR ANIMALS
    Oakland, CA
    Email – afa@mcn.org

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