Sharks don’t die quickly after being finned. Once they hit the water, sharks usually sink. It’s hard for the shark to swim without the dorsal fin, which keeps it upright and stable. Immobilized, the shark will either suffocate or suffer death by the jaws of another predator.
Shark finning, the act of harvesting the expensive fin, without directly killing the shark, is no doubt a cruel procedure. Finning is greedy, the point being that isolated fins are easier to transport than entire shark carcasses. It’s also wasteful, as shark meat is perfectly edible.
Most will probably be happy to hear about the shark fin ban proposed Monday in California. Legislators introduced a bill that would ban the possession, sale and distribution of these prized fins, which are used mostly in the luxurious Chinese dish of shark fin soup.
Hawai’i led the way with the shark fin legislature, banning finning last year. Why doesn’t California jump on board?
Well, like everything else in life, the issue isn’t as clear as it seems.
The first snag is that shark finning is already illegal in the United States.
President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act into law Jan. 4, making it necessary for all sharks to have both fins and carcasses and for the fins to be attached to the sharks they arrive in port.
As for importing shark fins, it’s not possible with the accompanying carcass, thanks to Bill Clinton’s signing of the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000.
So where exactly does the problem lie? It seems the fins used in California are from legitimately fished shark carcasses, not from the cruel practice of shark finning. Why would it make sense to put a full ban on a culturally prized item for which there is a real demand?
“Right now, Costco sells shark steak,” State Sen. Leland Yee told the San Francisco Chronicle. “What are you going to do with the fin from that shark? This is another example in a long line of examples of insensitivity to the culture and traditions of the Asian American community.”
Yee’s chief-of-staff Adam Keigwin agreed, noting that a complete ban would simply hurt small businesses still wishing to operate in a lawful manner.
But Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who helped to introduce the bill, said attacking the problem at the source — the demand, not the supply — is the way to approach the issue. This is primarily because there aren’t enough officials to regulate practices at the docks.
“[Selling illegal fins] is still fairly ubiquitous despite this nominal ban on the practice of shark finning,” Huffman told Capitol Weekly. “There is a very lucrative market that continues fueling the practice.”
So if we can’t stop illegal shark fin distribution while federal measures are in place, what would allow a ban of shark fins in California to actually work? After all, there’s clearly a lucrative, illegal market at work here. It’s hard to imagine things would change significantly with the ban in place.
Lots of people see shark’s fin as a treasured delicacy, an integral part of celebrations or festive events. I can’t imagine people would simply give up consuming it without feeling wronged in some way.
There is no quick fix to the issue of sharks and their fins. The problem isn’t shark finning itself, it’s the fact that sharks are being overfished as a whole. Shark populations have declined massively over the last 40 years, with the World Conservation Union noting that some species have declined in number by up to 90 percent.
Maybe a bill that takes the easy road, a full ban of the controversial product at hand, isn’t the best solution to the problem. Would a ban make people want the product any less?
It’s still unclear how much good the ban would do and how much shark sales would decline. As Huffman pointed out, people get what people want and a full ban might just accelerate the sale of shark fins on the black market.
It also seems that there are better options than to simply forbid a community from indulging in what is a cherished food with much tradition behind it. You might not care about shark’s fin soup, but does that mean a bill with uncertain benefits should be hastily passed?
It comes down to who would really be affected by the law. Shark populations might benefit, but if a black market flourishes, the bill might be for naught.
What is definite, however, is that a community of people would lose out, namely small businesses that thrive on the demand for this luxury product.
Innocent animals are easy to sympathize with, but unfamiliar cultures and foods, however are harder to care about. Perhaps the right step forward would be one that patiently takes everyone and everything, not just sharks, into account.
Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Food As Life,” runs Thursdays.