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shark-fin soup

A proposed statewide ban on shark fins elicits disapproval in Oakland’s Chinatown

on March 9, 2011

A state bill that would ban the possession and distribution of shark fins in California has led to debate between conservationists and Chinese American leaders, and has its share of critics in Oakland’s Chinatown.

Assembly Bill 376, introduced in February by Assemblymen Jared Huffman and Paul Fong, would prevent hundreds of restaurants from serving shark-fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy that is a mark of prestige at banquets.

Supporters of the bill say that increasing demand for the expensive cuisine is a major driver of declining shark populations, as well as the cause of an illegal fishing practice called finning, which involves cutting off the tails and fins of living sharks, which are then tossed back into the sea to starve to death.

The practice is used to save space on vessels to store more shark fins, which are far more lucrative than shark meat. Dried shark fins, according to various media accounts, can cost as much as $500 a pound. And the price of shark-fin soup, based on the materials’ quality, can reach as high as $100 a bowl.

“Arguably sharks are the most important fish in the ocean,” said David McGuire, a shark researcher at California Academy of Sciences and director of SeaStewards, an environmental group that sponsors the bill.

McGuire said without sharks, the apex predators in the ocean, the whole marine ecosystem would collapse. “If we continue on the current rate, we’re going to lose all our sharks by 2050,” he said, adding that even if it’s difficult to assess the overall economics of the shark-fin industry, “many hundreds of thousands of dollars of fins are coming through San Francisco Port.”

But the proposed ban, which is supported by a number of Asian American chefs and activists, is at the same time facing considerable opposition from the Chinese community.

“This is another example in a long line of examples of insensitivity to the culture and traditions of the Asian American community,” said Leland Yee, California’s first Chinese American state senator, to the San Francisco Chronicle last month.

Yee also argued that while shark meat is legal in the United States, the fins that come with those legally fished sharks should not be wasted. But supporters of the bill say that allowing those fins to be traded will generate a loophole since it’s difficult to identify the origins of the fins.

In Oakland’s Chinatown the bill has been criticized on a number of fronts. Some say it exaggerates the impact of shark-fin soup on the declining shark population. “We only used a little [shark fin] for events like weddings,” said Chinatown resident Ming Ho, who also said that because of its high price, shark-fin soup isn’t a commonly consumed dish.

The bill would also drive some seafood importers out of business, opponents say. “I know one family who has been doing shark-fin trade for three generations—the bill would put them out of work,” said Joseph Siu, honorary chair of the Oriental Food Association, an importer representative with a number of clients in Oakland.

“For this bill, it pinpoints and targets Chinese, saying we are the people who are endangering the species, which is not true,” said Carl Chan, a board member of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Chan, who said he condemns the practice of shark finning and encourages everyone to protect the environment, believes that the bill “demonizes” Chinese culture.

“A thousand years ago, we already knew how to utilize every part of the shark,” he said. “Cutting off the fins and throwing the bodies back into the ocean is not a part of Chinese culture.”

Chan said the bill is an example of a double standard adopted by politicians who want to get more recognition from environmental groups. “For example, cows are slaughtered only for the meat and everything else is thrown away—this is not the way to appreciate food,” said Chan, who also said he believes the bill is similar to previous proposals that conflict with Chinese food culture, such as the bans on the sale of live poultry and frogs.

“I actually support those cultural practices,” Fong responded. “But sharks are endangered species. This is a much larger issue.”

Fong said they’re still working on details of the bill regarding fins that come with those sharks legally captured. But no matter what, he says, any distribution of shark fins will be banned.

“One fin removed illegally from a shark is one too many,” Fong said.

The bill may see a vote by the Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife within the next month, Fong said.

Photo: Shark-fin soup, an 1,800-year-old Chinese delicacy, can cost as much as $100 a bowl today. Photo courtesy of Yun Huang Yong.


  1. Alice Waters Fan on March 9, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I think Alice Waters is a big fan of shark fin soup.

    Did this reporter question her?

    • Bill Wong on March 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm

      It’s my understanding shr has changed her position on shark fin soup.

  2. livegreen on March 9, 2011 at 10:38 am

    The reason the bill is necessary is:
    -It’s impossible to enforce proper shark fin removal on every boat in every fleet in every country;
    -The cost of shark fins has been reduced and supply increased, while wealth and demand has increased;
    -Sharks are becoming an endangered species. Like Tigers they simply need to be protected. Putting human preferences ahead of animals very existence is a decision older asian-americans are more willing to make than younger generations. In other areas this is similar to older generations of caucasians, africans, etc.
    -Fox hunting in England, wearing fur pelts (otter, lynx, etc.) in the U.S. & Western Europe, Ivory for ornaments and jews are all but a few cultural traditions built around endangered species that have been reduced or made outright illegal in order to protect the few remaining animals. Chinese culture is not alone in this, and it should not be used as an excuse to kill off the few remaining animals of its kind.
    -Since enforcement and monitoring is impossible as it stands now, there are at least one other possibility: severely limiting the importation so costs will increase back to their historical status (also returning the status symbol, without which it is not a true historical cultural tradition anyway).

  3. Eric Mills on March 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    This one’s a “no-brainer,” folks. “Culture” and “tradition” should NEVER trump environmental protection or animal welfare, and kudos to Assemblymember Paul Fong (of Chinese descent) for recognizing this.

    Hawaii passed this legislation last year, and just this week the Washington State Senate passed a similar bill unanimously. Oregon also has such a bill in the works. There’s now a movement in China to ban this cruel and unsustainable commerce.

    AB 376 will be heard before the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee on March 22, and support letters are needed NOW.


    Or email the chairman (Assemblymember Jared Huffman) and the committee at:

    All other committee members may be emailed using the same pattern as above. They are: Paul Fong (D-Cupertino)
    Linda Halderman (R-Fresno)
    Bill Berryhill (R-Stockton)
    Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills)
    Nora Campos (D-San Jose)
    Mike Gatto (D-Silverlake)
    Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina)
    Ben Hueso (D-Logan Heights)
    Brian Jones (R-Santee)
    Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens)
    Kristen Olsen (R-Modesto)
    Mariko Yamada (D-Davis)

    And when we’ve saved the sharks (and maybe ourselves), perhaps we can do the same for the diseased and parasitized turtles and frogs in the live animal food markets. These animals, too, are often butchered while fully conscious. Not acceptable.

    Meanwhile, we should all be asking local restaurants to take shark fin soup off the menu.

  4. Yvonne Chu on March 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    The argument that the shark fin ban is racist, because the ban targets a dish that mainly Chinese eat, doesn’t hold, because foie gras, a French cultural delicacy, has already been banned prior to this.

    Around 90% of sharks have been wiped out just in the last 20-30 years from eating shark fin soup. 1/3 of the species of sharks are now endangered due to this practice of killing up to 73 million sharks a year. At this rate, sharks which have been around for hundreds of millions of years could soon become extinct. Should we keep eating shark fin soup until all sharks are gone?

    Decimating shark populations has consequences such as collapsing our scallop fisheries, threatening crab (and abalone!) populations, and decreased oxygen supply in the atmosphere due to decreased phytoplankton, which currently provides half of the world’s oxygen.

    Here’s a segment on KQED discussing why anything other than a complete ban is not enforceable and effective in preventing sharks populations from further declining (i.e. Senator Yee’s suggestion does not work):

    One cannot underestimate the impact of AB 376 in countries such as Hong Kong, China, and Singapore. California is the largest importer of shark fin outside Asia, because there’re many Chinese here (California being on the coast closest to Asia). Due to the internet, many Chinese in other parts of the world are aware of and participate in discussions about AB 376.

    It is very likely that AB 376 prompted this lawmaker in China, Ding Liguo, deputy to the National People’s Congress, to PROPOSE THAT CHINA’S TOP LEGISLATURE SHOULD BAN THE TRADE OF SHARK FIN. He said, “Only legislation can stop shark fin trading and reduce the killings of sharks” [Shanghai Daily, 2011-3-9].

  5. Ban Napa Wine on March 9, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    If the Shark Fin ban passes in California I think China and other Asian countries should been some good ole American products such as California Napa Valley Wine, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Florida Stewed Alligator, Iowa Roased Pork, Chicago Style Pizza, and Jelly Belly candies.

  6. Michelle Tsai on March 10, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Yes. I am Chinese. Not that young, even, and not even born in the U.S. I see the silliness of the self-defensive attitude of calling every complaint racism. Leland Yee and Fiona Ma are really being led around by the Chinatown markets. Respectable people look very, very childish and frankly not intelligent when we have to use the word culture and race all the time. We are all different and precious as individuals. One person is not a culture or a race. And there is no such thing as a permanent culture, unless they want to call it a religion. I would like to say this again to Leland Yee (and Fiona Ma) in public: There is no such thing as “culture food.” Anything can be called that.

    Just to let everyone know, my conversation with Leland Yee in his office has not seemed to help. He and Fiona Ma still want to help the Chinatowns import invasive, diseased turtles and frogs for the live markets. These things are not cheap and they are not subsistence food even, not to mention the disease. And I won’t go into the horrible way the turtles have to be butchered live (hard to “dispatch” otherwise). They keep calling it “culture food.” The silent majority of Chinese and Asians possibly disagree with this.

  7. […] coverage of the measure, see OaklandNorth or the Globe and Mail’s coverage.  Francis Lam over at Salon also has a pretty good […]

  8. Bob Chow on March 15, 2011 at 7:38 am

    We all support to stop the cruelty of illegal shark finning. However, shark fishery is allowed by Federal Shark Conservation Act. Therefore, there is no problem to consume any part of the shark through a manageable harvest just like any other fish. You can’t simply tie a normal consumption to a criminal act. If you meant to scarify a normal consumption for the objective to stop the cruelty of illegal shark finning, it just like posting a curfew to stop the crimes at night in Oakland. Reducing the shark fishery is a good campaign, but to legislate only shark fin is not justice.

  9. Yvonne Chu on March 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Bob, it’s not an American fishery issue but an import-export trade issue. How do you propose to end illegal shark finning unless we cut the demand?

    Here are some articles discussing the enforceability issue: excellent KQED discussion about enforceability issue
    Illegal shark fishing in Galapagos:

    Kirk Lombard wrote at

    ‘This is not an American fishery issue, as he [Senator Yee] seems to indicate… it’s an import-export issue. It’s a trade issue. You want to make your sharkfin soup out of Californa caught thresher shark, or the Monterey seafood guide’s yellow choice BC, bottom line caught spiny dogfish (the only shark fishery on earth that even gets a yellow rating!). Fish that have been tagged, weighed, identified, added to the quota, etc? I got no problem with that.

    But that’s not the issue, Mr. Yee. The issue is importation of unidentifiable fins. The stuff of which most sharkfin soup is, evidently, made.

    “However,” Lee said to reporters last week, “the proposed state law to ban all shark fins from consumption — regardless of species or how they were fished or harvested — is the wrong approach and an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine.” …

    I’d really like to see a graph that shows the different types of sharks typically used in shark fin soup in this city. You telling me it’s mostly local threshers, makos, blues, spiny dogfish? I’d be shocked if that were true. But I remain open, as always, to being proven wrong {MFN: if anyone has access to records showing what types of sharks are being served in local shark fin soup joints, let me know}.

    As long as shark fins are allowed to be sold, apart from their bodies, there will be a major problem with monitoring them. Dried, dessicated fins are impossible to i.d. without elaborate DNA testing.’

    To screen sharks at the ports is unviable. DNA analysis is a time intensive, costly and laborious process and cannot be used on a large scale to screen sharks.

    • Ye Tian on March 17, 2011 at 9:21 am

      CAS, according to McGuire, is doing a survey on the ban’s impact on local businesses and it’s also been DNA sampling shark fins sold in Chinatown in San Francisco.

      • Yvonne Chu on March 23, 2011 at 4:55 pm

        Yes, and in that article Mcquire wrote:

        “In fact DNA sequenced from fins purchased in San Francisco indicate that the fins come from sharks all over the world, over half threatened as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). One unrecognizable bag of noodles purchased was once a Great Hammerhead Shark, a species that can grow up to 18 feet and weigh 1500 pounds. Hammerheads sharks are highly coveted for soup and it has been well established that the finning industry targets these species. Perhaps 3 % of this shark made it to market if the animal was finned.” Hammerhead sharks are endangered.

        The information about CAS’s findings on DNA sampling is also in this article

        “This is an international trade affecting sharks worldwide. As Dr. McCosker said, sharks cannot be farmed due to their biology. There is no sustainable source of shark fins from any fishery to support the demand.

        To screen sharks at the ports is unviable. DNA analysis is a time intensive, costly and laborious process and cannot be (as one caller suggested) used on a large scale to screen sharks.”

        Please also take a look at the evidence here:

        If we can “sell, offer for sale, trade or distribute” shark fin, then illegal shark-finning will continue unabated. For instance, even though all the right legislation is in place in the Galapagos (shark fin exports are illegal, shark fishing is illegal, longlining is illegal), illegal shark-finning still happens, and happens a lot. Similar to the ivory trade, the only way to end illegal shark-finning is to cut the demand.

  10. Bob on March 17, 2011 at 9:38 am

    See! You people do not focus on the problem. You can’t tell what percentage of the shark fin in US market is coming form illegal activity. If like you said the problem is from import trade, why you just stop all the illegal imports rather ban it all.
    Many of us do not eat shark fin soup by our own choice. We can not accept being treated as pupil. Please bring up your facts, educate people, have a good campaign on respecting the our natural resources as well peoples.

  11. […] You can read other Oakland North coverage about the reaction from people in Oakland’s Chinatown here. […]

  12. Nancy Fancy Food on April 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    The bill makes sense to want to stop a excessive demand. I know we can all live without shark in our foods. I hope the bill will get passed.

  13. […] Moreover, McGuire and others say, because sharks are apex predators, the welfare of the marine ecosystem depends on their presence. […]

  14. […] of the biggest local stories in March involved food — the heated debate over the proposed ban on shark fins, and the levying of citations and possible fines against urban homesteader Novella […]

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