Paul Fong, Leland Yee: Shark Fins in a Soup of Cultural Controversy

February 15, 2011

It’s like clockwork. Every few years, the shark fin debate is revived anew, and by now, the narrative has become predictable: Chinese culture advocates who believe that they have the right to continue enjoying a centuries-old delicacy are pitted against conservationists who argue that shark fishing practices are cruel and environmentally unsustainable.

The controversy was reignited in California yesterday with the introduction of a bill by Assemblymen Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) that would make it illegal to “possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin” unless it was for educational or scientific purposes (California Assembly Bill 376).

This time, the story takes an interesting twist: A Chinese American has publicly adopted the environmentalist stance! (As Assemblymember Fong explained to the press, he grew up eating shark fin soup but stopped “when I found out the effect it is having on the shark population two years ago…”)

And in this seemingly timeless war over shark fin between conservationalists and Chinese culture champions, Assemblymember Fong has been matched up against a fellow Bay Area Chinese American politician, Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who conversely told reporters that AB 376 fits into a pattern where “individuals or groups of individuals are trying to limit our heritage and our culture.”

It’s great local political drama with international ripple effects. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it in today’s front-page article, the issue is “igniting an emotional debate between conservationists and Asian leaders.” And one San Francisco political analyst believes that “the shark-fin debate pits environmentalist values against traditional Chinese values,” according to The Bay Citizen. Numerous media outlets have picked up on the story, highlighting the untenable tension created between Chinese culture and environmentalism in a city that values both.

So who’s right?

Hyphen is putting a reported piece together about this story as we speak, by food editor Nina Kahori Fallenbaum (look for it next week), and I concede the topic is complicated. While some shark-fin harvesting practices are horrendous (no one should get a pass, in the name of culture, for slicing off fins and tossing maimed sharks back into sea to suffer and die), and the over-fishing of sharks creates tremendous environmental disruptions (though arguably, the cost of shark fin -- as high as $500 per pound -- mitigates against rampant consumption of it). But AB 376 would essentially make it a crime for Chinese restaurants in California to serve shark fin soup -- even if the shark fin was obtained reasonably (as Sen. Yee points out, shark meat is sold at Costco, and those fins have to go somewhere).

Seems to me that there might be less over-reaching ways to address the issue through improved regulation of shark fishing and shark fin sales. But I’m no policymaker.

Though it’s not a black-and-white issue, I’ll tell you who’s clearly wrong in all of this: The media outlets that have covered the issue with an incredible lack of criticality. For the most part, the reportage presents us with a troubling tale of how Chinese culture is at odds with conservationism -- as if the two are somehow incompatible. But in the US, the meat and fish industry are also no stranger to unsustainable or inhumane methods of raising, housing, and slaughtering livestock or fish. So why does a delicacy primarily enjoyed by an immigrant community receive such intense legislative scrutiny? Perhaps the shark lobby needs to step up its game.

What would happen if a politician introduced a bill that -- similar to what’s on the table for shark fin -- made it illegal to “possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute” beef, chicken, pork or fish that was killed inhumanely or where consumption would have negative environmental repercussions? Would the press scramble to cover it as the mighty and irreconcilable clash between American culture and conservationists?

[Postscript: For the record, I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t much care for shark fin soup, although like Assemblyman Fong, I’ve grown up eating it.]




Please understand that the introduction of this bill is not an attack on a culture or a group of people, and know, please, that those of us working on it are respectful of the sensitive cultural nature of the issue. I became involved because I love the ocean. And because I am a mother. Children should know the ocean we grew up loving, but it is already so different. It is awash with plastic; many species are struggling for survival; great numbers of fish and marine mammals are poisoned with mercury or other toxins. But there is no greater threat to the stability of the ocean than the removal of its top predators: sharks. The ocean is balanced and remains healthy by what lives there, what eats there, and what cleans up the sick and dying. The ocean is a delicate and beautifully balanced ecosystem. Sharks have been a part of that balance for over 450 million years. And yet, sharks are facing extinction, due in large part, to finning. Many populations of sharks have been reduced by over 90%. Some are late to reproduce and/or have few young. They simply can not reproduce quickly enough to fill the demand for shark fin soup. One hundred million sharks per year are being killed in our world's oceans. That's 273,973 per day worldwide. Think about that. Really think about that. We must live in harmony with our natural world. We must find balance. We can not take and take and take from our natural world at a rate faster than it can provide. It is like grazing our way through our refrigerator and then standing in front of it with the door open wondering where all the food went. This is not about culture. This is about the survival of the oceans, and our planet needs the oceans to survive. We can not remove the ocean's top predators and expect the rest to stay intact. As my ten year old puts it, "Sharks eat the things, that eat the things, that eat the things." The Chesapeake Bay on the east coast is overrun with cow nose rays. They are ravaging the oysterbeds. There are too many rays because hammerhead sharks have been overfished. Now the people who sell the oysters are asking, "What do we do with all the rays?" What they should be asking is, "How do we bring the hammerheads back?" There is no UNDO button on Planet Earth. Extinction is extinction, and it is final. Do we really need to take it that far for soup? Can't we put the racist rhetoric aside and just see that shark fin soup simply needs to be eliminated from the table? An Asian chef told me yesterday that people need to just forget about it and find something else to eat. To your comments in the article: There is no way to completely regulate the fishing of sharks on the high seas. The oceans are vast. The stakes are high. And we do have a law in place. A federal law (S 850) was recently passed making it unlawful to bring shark fins into the United States. But compare this to cocaine. It is unlawful to bring cocaine into the country. It is unlawful to possess it, sell it, trade it, or distribute it within the country. Imagine how much worse the drug problem would be if it were only, "You can't bring cocaine into the country, but if you happen to have it once it's here, go for it!" What kind of world do we want to leave for our children, and theirs? I want my sons never to have to say to their children, "The oceans were once alive with sharks. They lived for over 450 million years, but now they are gone... because of soup." Do your research and do it well before you call this a cultural issue. This is a shark issue. We need to save them before it's too late.
With all due respect, this IS a "black and white issue." Cultural traditions should NEVER trump environmental degradation or animal welfare, and kudos to Assemblyman Paul Fong for realizing this and taking action. He's my Hero of the Year. Senator Leland Yee, who has a commendable voting record on most environmental and animal issues, missed the boat on this one, Big Time. (Some cynics say it has more to do with his SF mayoral aspirations than environmental concerns.) And the chicken/pork/beef parallel argument is a bogus one. Agreed, we should all burn in hell for the agonies endured by the 10 BILLION farm animals we consume annually in the U.S. (not counting fish). But those are DOMESTIC animals. Sharks are WILD animals, and key to the health and balance of the marine ecosystem, an ecosystem upon which our own existence depends. Until Fong's Assembly Bill 376 passes, we should be boycotting all restaurants which sell this horrendous product (which is mostly just gristle, and tastes like crap, frankly, and sells for $300-$700 per pound. Could feed a lot of hungry people with that. ALL LEGISLATORS MAY BE WRITTEN C/O THE STATE CAPITOL, SACRAMENTO, CA 95814. Thank Assemblyman Fong, and encourage all others to support this long-overdue legislation.
The Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance represents Asian Pacific Americans who support the proposed legislation to ban the sale, trade, possession and distribution of shark fin. Members of the Alliance include: • Asian Pacific Islanders California Action Network • Mr. Dennis Arguelles, Exec. Dir., SIPA • Mr. Kunal Ashar • Ms. Eugenia Beh • Ms. Tami Bui, CA API Commissioner* • Ms. Elaine Chiao • Dr. Michael Chang, Vice Pres., Santa Clara Co. Bd. of Ed.* • Ms. Yusa Chang • Mr. Theo Chen • Ms. Deborah Ching • Mr. Ricky Choi, Bd. Mbr. TRUE PAC* • Ms. Natalie Chu • Mr. Henry Der, Fmr. CA State Dep. Supt. Of Public Inst. • Ms. Tulula Fanjoy • Ms. Sandy Fong-Navalta • Prof. Bill Hing, USF School of Law • Ms. Iris Ho • Ms. Rachael Hsin • Mr. Dennis Huang, Exec. Dir., Asian Business Assn.* • Mr. Kent Hwang • Ms. Georgette Imura • Ms. Amelie Jiang • Ms. Mariko Kahn • Hon. Ashu Kalra, San Jose City Council* • Mr. Keith Kamasugi, Bd. Member CAA* • Mr. Walter Kawamoto • Ms. Judy Ki, Ret. CA Public School Teacher • Ms. Alissa Ko, Fmr. Pres. CA Young Dems* • Mr. Dan Kuramoto, Founder, Hiroshima* • Ms. Annie Lam, Bd. Mbr. TRUE PAC* • Mr. Mike Lam • Mr. James T. Lau, Fmr. Exec. Dir. CLCV Education Fund* • Mr. Sidney Le • Ms. Sheryl Lee • Ms. Eunsook Lee, Fmr. Exec. Dir., NAKASEC* • Ms. Sandy Lee • Mr. Timothy Lee • Ms. Lisa Ling, Journalist • Hon. Henry Lo, Garvey School Board* • Ms. Stacy Louie • Hon. Evan Low, Campbell City Council* • Ms. Tam Ma, Fmr. Pres. My Sister’s House • Mr. Levin Manabat • Mr. Paul Manansala • Mr. Joey Manansala • Dr. Theodora Manolas • Mr. Mark Mayeda • Prof. Wayne Mayeda, Asian American Studies at CSUS* • Mr. Dale Minami, APA Civil Rights Attorney • Mr. Jim Mock • Ms. Maxi Mock • Mr. John Nagano • Hon. Steve Ngo, San Francisco Community College Trustee* • Ms. Anita Nguyen • Ms. Jennie Nguyen • Ms. Lindsey Nitta, Pres. Sacramento Young Democrats* • Mr. Paul Osaki, Exec. Dir., JCCCNC* • Mr. Steve Owyang, APA Civil Rights Attorney • Ms. Pearl Fu • Mr. Mark Phuong • Mr. David Ryu • Ms. Noelani Sailings • Ms. Janeen Tang • Ms. Sylvia Tang, Fmr. Bd. Mbr Chinese American Council* • Ms. Diane Ujiiye, Fmr. CA API Commissioner* • Ms. Gigi Wong • Ms. Dar Woo • Ms. Jen-Mei Wu • Mr. Kahn Yamada • Ms. Elaine Yamaguchi • Ms. Erica Zhang
While I have never seen shark meat available at Costco, the amount of sharks that are captured to use the whole of the fish produces no where near the amount of fins needed to fill the market for shark fin soup. I have an article on my site today about this along with the update that Leland Yee is thumbing his nose at the bill by holding a press conference serving shark fin soup.
reasonable= effective, emotional= useless when you see a gruesome picture of bleeding cuddly animals (..sharks can be cuddly!) and start crying and getting angry it doesn’t make you noble or righteous. in fact those antics compromise the validity of your argument REGARDLESS of its possible power and truth. getting upset about suffering animals doesn’t make you a conservationist. to conserve the ocean, or anything for that matter, you must first adopt reason as your side kick, and calculate what is going to make change efficient, swift and lasting. being cruel to animals is a whole other subject. this is about the health of the planet. saving the earth is about being creative and using your brain. and math. hella math. out lawing shark fins is ridiculous for many reasons but here’s three: 1) people like it. you can’t compare it to other controlled substances either because it doesn’t harm the body in the immediate direct sense. it’s healthier than most of the crap we eat, and its way tasty. plus you have the ingrained history of the stuff. you can’t just go around subtracting certain foods out of people’s long happy culture expecting them to go along with it. 2) the market for shark fins can be managed. just like trees, tuna, whales, or anything else, there is a way it can be done well and thoughtfully. yes, we have already spent the earth to within an inch of our lives, but putting the brakes on 7 billion people AINT GONNA HAPPEN. you gotta work with em. you gotta hear em out. 3) bycatch kills almost as many sharks as finning. if you really want to help sharks, we should solve this problem first because it just about pure waste. nobody even wants bycatch sharks. finning is very wasteful too, so if we could just find a way to make sure that when a shark is killed the whole animal is used, this situation would be improved immensely. you know what this is like? its like fuel. we like our cars. we won’t stop driving them, even though we’ve jammed the knife into our own back for hundreds of years to come by using them (read: all fuel burning devices). in the case of fuel, we are finally starting to investigate and generate better options (algal biofuels, YES! collaborative scientists with super imaginations FTW!!!), but only after decades of emotional fighting *blech*. we’ll keep driving cars. we’ll keep eating sharks. we just have to do it better. Maybe less often. My life is dedicated to marine science and education. I live for this. Bring it on. Let’s go change the world. WITH OUR BRAINS. ok, with our whole bodies, actually. but people tend to forget the brain part. ;D p.s. i can talk shark biology all day. ask questions!
This is actually the first nuanced and reasonably thing I've read about the entire issue. And I am, frankly disgusted at many of the comments underneath newspaper articles on the internet. At this point, I have become a keen fan of sharkfin soup. Primarily in reaction to all the morons pitching their big ole wasp hissy fits. For their benefit (and I sincerely hope it gives them apoplexy), sharkfin-related posts here: Assembly bill 376 is a badly put-together piece of poofle legislation that panders to one section of the population and their cultural preconceptions. It is indicative of how divided California has become.
Good article! It speaks for me, a Chinese American, who doesn't care to eat Shark Fin soup, but oppose so easy to ban something just basing on someone's own belief or favor. We need to see this in a big picture in order not be manipulated by some politician and media.
There is no reason to eat ANY dish, of any culture, that leads to the endangerment of a species. If Chinese all over the world continue to consume shark fin soup, sharks, which have been around for hundreds of millions of years, will be decimated in our lifetime, with adverse effects on our environment. I'm a Chinese immigrant and I personally feel that because Chinese have caused the depletion of sharks in the ocean, we have an added responsibility to support this ban. The shark fin trade has parallels to the ivory trade and our experience with ivory demonstrates that the only way to enforce the ban is to cut the demand. (this KQED forum discusses the enforceability issue).
I teach cross cultural communications and have lived in many different countries. I try to be very sensitive to different cultures and respect their way of doing things even if they are beyond my ken. But I agree with Lisa, this is not a cultural issue - it's a human issue. Any practice that causes the inhumane suffering of any living creature and contributes to the extinction of a species which is hugely critical to the health of our oceans is about ALL of is. .