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.
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