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The Shark Fin Debate

California’s Senate passed a bill Sept. 6 by a vote of 25 to 9 to enact a full ban on the trade of shark fins in the state. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill into law, the ban would  take effect in 2013.


  A series on the controversy surrounding shark fins:

Part 1: Mock shark fins, an alternative to the delicacy

Part 2: Reaction to passage of California's AB 376

Part 3: Shark fins and mercury

As was explained in my previous Zester article on mock shark fin soup, the proponents of Assembly Bill 376 (which passed in the Assembly in May on a 65-8 vote) appeared to have a reasonable argument: Since California is one of the largest markets for shark fins outside of Asia and is a main conduit for their distribution throughout the United States, this bill would reduce much of the pressure on what are being reported as rapidly diminishing shark populations all over the world.

Call to outlaw shark fishing, not just finning

However, not everyone sees it that way. Opponents of the bill, almost to a person, made an astounding argument that was rarely commented on during the debate running up to the vote: They would rather see shark fishing completely outlawed than allow Chinese-Americans, the main consumers of shark fins in California, to be demonized. Yes, outlawed. People such as State Sen. Ted Liu (D-Torrance); Pius Lee, the co-chair of the San Francisco Chinatown Neighborhood Association; and Cantonese Chef Kam Wo Au of the Kitchen in Millbrae, Calif., seemed to be agreeing to the impossible. “I would support just not killing sharks,” said Liu, “but if you’re going to kill a shark for a steak or for wallets, then I think you should use the same shark for soup.” And that was the main stance of just about everyone against the bill. As Au pointed out, “If no sharks can be caught, and you can’t eat them and you can’t sell them, I think this is more fair.”

Shark fin soup is Cantonese ‘heritage’

As for who is eating these California shark fins, Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale) has a simple answer: Chinese-Americans who order shark fin soup. “I just know that my only opposition are the Cantonese … My people — I’m Cantonese too! The old-time Cantonese are the ones that are raising their voices, crying out ‘discrimination.'”

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Fong is referring to opponents such as state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who thinks supporters of this bill “are trying to limit our heritage and our culture” by forbidding Chinese-Americans this traditional delicacy. Fong strongly disagrees: “It’s my culture too,” he says with a laugh. “You know, I’m Chinese-American too. I was born in China. I’m proud of the Chinese culture. The Chinese culture will survive without shark fin soup.”

The opposition to this bill centers on Lee and the business interests he represents, which according to the AB 376 bill analysis is a narrowly focused group of Chinese dried goods importers such as Chung Chou City and Stockton Seafood Center, and the Asian Nutrition and Health Association, a collective of Chinese product importers. Lee believes that AB 376 was not necessary because “the majority of shark fin is imported from other states, such as Florida and New York,” and so local fishermen, processors, importers, restaurateurs and diners should not be penalized.

Fear that shark fishing ban might lead to poaching

On the other side are the conservationists and scientists who realize that this wouldn’t work in reality. World-renowned shark expert John McCosker explained: “The attitude of conservationists and biologists is, [a complete ban] won’t work … if there’s any opportunity for illegal poaching, it will occur because the value of [the fins] is too much.”

As the chair of the California Academy of Sciences’ department of aquatic biology, McCosker has a ready answer for why Chinese-American consumers should not be allowed to remove the fins of sharks killed for sport or by commercial fishermen: “There’s no enforcement mechanism that can control it, so I don’t think that that’s possible.”

Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, an international group intent on ending illegal wildlife trade, points out that “a small scale meat fishery in California is sustainable. There’s no big incentive there to cheat or take extra numbers or expand the catch. But if you put the fins in, there is. The fins are the most valuable part, and are driving the unsustainable fisheries of sharks around the world.”

Knights, who is working with Richard Branson and basketball star Yao Ming to publicize the shark fin dilemma in China and elsewhere, went on to add that “there isn’t a need to ban all shark fishing. I think recreational fishing is pretty well regulated within California, and I think that the commercial fisheries are sufficiently small scale at this point. They don’t pose a threat to shark populations, and they don’t impact shark populations beyond California waters. They are being governed by the Fish and Game Commission, so there is a venue if that becomes a problem, to address that. What there isn’t a venue for right now is anything to do with the shark fin trade, and that is what AB 376 is very specifically designed to do.”

Now that California appears to be banning shark fins for good, where will conservationists focus next? “New York,” says Knights, “would be the obvious next step.”

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.

Photo: Dried shark fin for sale. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips

Slide show credits:

Photos of Assemblyman Paul Fong, John McCosker, Sen. Ted Lieu and Pius Lee by J.H. Huang

Photo of jarred shark fins by Carolyn J. Phillips

Photo of Peter Knights courtesy of WildAid

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.