California's Proposed Shark Fin Ban Divides Chinese-American Community

shark fins in jars photo
Various shark fins on display at a store.

Migrated Image / Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

We've talked about the pending legislation that would ban shark fins in California several times here on TreeHugger. California Assembly Bill AB376 would prohibit the sale, purchase, or possession of shark fins for all but licensed fishermen in California, starting on Jan. 1, 2013.

While most environmentalists are excited about a bill that would help stomp out the sale of shark fins -- and indeed several states including Hawaii, Oregon and Washington have already passed similar legislation -- the bill does not come without controversy, including complaints that it targets a cultural institution. "Many years ago, it was seen as food for royalty," [Ivy Lai, owner of a store that sells shark fins among other things] told Star-Advertiser.

"It's still expensive. But it is a gift. It is very important to the culture. When you get rid of it you are totally destroying a tradition."

Is a tradition worth keeping if it wipes out not only sharks but also the ecosystems that depend on them for keeping other species in check and picking off the sick and injured? Researchers have proven that sharks as alpha predators are key for healthy reefs, which are key for human economies. Are we really putting a tradition above healthy ecosystems?

How could the tradition of shark fin soup possibly be destroyed by removing it from the dish and replacing it with a substitute? After all, the fin is tasteless, and only a tiny piece of the oddly textured fin is ever found in a bowl of soup. On top of that, it is usually laden with mercury. If anything, finding a substitute would be the gift of health to the millions of people who dine on the soup during weddings, family events, and business gatherings.

As Star-Advertiser reports, "In 2009, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that 64 shark species were endangered or near-endangered."

Experts estimate that we kill between 73 million and 100 million sharks each year through fishing, caught either as bycatch, by sport fishermen, or for their fins. The price their fins can catch is no small incentive for some fishermen to hunt them at far from sustainable levels.

"[A]t this rate, they're going to go extinct in our lifetime," said Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, who authored the legislation with Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. "If they do go extinct, the top predator would be removed from the food chain and that would throw the ocean's ecosystem into a huge imbalance -- and that will affect us all."

Fong, who grew up in Sunnyvale, said he ate the soup as a child as part of his own family's tradition. But recently, he became convinced it was an anachronism after watching a documentary showing how fishermen cut the fins off live sharks and throw the bloodied and maimed fish back in the ocean to die a slow death.
Fong said he is unmoved by those who accuse him of attacking a cultural institution.
"The Chinese culture,'' he said, "used to promote foot binding on women."

The sale of shark fins has already been banned in Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon. We are now just waiting on California.

Star-Advertiser writes, "State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, noted that killing sharks would remain legal, and Beverly Hills shoppers could buy their $440 sharkskin leather wallets, while others could continue ordering Mako shark steaks at restaurants."

Using an entire shark, including skin and meat, is one thing, but finning them -- catching them, cutting off their fins, and dropping the still-alive shark back into the water to drown -- is another. Banning shark fins from the sale could go a long way in helping the government enforce regulations that require fishermen to bring in their shark catches intact, with fins attached, and therefore they are able to catch fewer sharks each trip. Reaching sustainable fishing levels will be far easier if the sale of their most lucrative part, the fin, is banned.

According to the news article, opponents argue that up to $70 million in gross sales would be lost statewide, and at least twice that if you include the grounding of operations associated with the legal shark fin market. However, researchers have shown that for many coastal economies, living sharks are worth over a million dollars each thanks to the benefits they provide in keeping reefs healthy and attracting tourists.

In the end, we have to ask, does a component of a culture's traditional menu outweigh the survival of one of the most important predators in the sea? There is, no doubt, a lot of work to be done to help shark numbers rebound, but banning the sale of shark fins is an important component, and hopefully just the start of more stringent legislation in the US and worldwide.

Oceana is delivering over 5,000 signatures to California's Senators today.