Shark fin legislation one-sided

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.

9 replies
  1. American
    American says:

    It is my choice if I want turkey for thanksgiving. If I’m Chinese it is my choice to try shark fin soup on a special occasion.

    The bill takes away my choice. If sharks are endangered then put the sharks on the endangered list. If they are not endangered why not? Shark is like any other fish in the sea. Why make this bill instead of lobbying fish&game to ban all consumption of sharks? If you chose just fins then you “are” targeting only Chinese. Make a ban on all sharks then that’s being objective.

    As for chinese feet binding. It was meant as a way to make a girl seem more feminine and elegant to have small feet. Look around you! Girls do alot more crazy things for the price of beauty (guys too). They have nose jobs, boob implants, butt implants, etc… Males have circumcisions adopted from Jewish culture. Girls piece ears when they infants. People have tattoos (was taboo decades ago).
    Come on, just because a culture is different than your own does not mean you should look down on it in disgust. We are American, we are better than that.

  2. Bodhi
    Bodhi says:

    I’m tired of people hiding behind their claims of “tradition” and “culture”. Foot binding was a traditional custom, why don’t people still practice this?

    Historically, traditions have often included culturally sanctioned abuse that when examined, needed to be evaluated for its ethical value. Unfortunately women were property, to be abused at the owner’s discretion. Similarly, Africans were sold into slavery and abused in the name of culture and tradition.

    Also, The disparity in the high value of shark fins compared to shark meat provides an incentive for the wasteful, unsustainable, and socially irresponsible practice of shark finning. Given the high market value of the shark’s fin, it is important to note a great deal of the shark finning industry is illegal and controlled by groups not unlike drug cartels with evidence of links to organized crime. Shark fin’s are worth so much that only trafficking drugs rivals fins for profit.

  3. Peter Knights
    Peter Knights says:

    As you note towards the end the shark fin bill is not just about preventing finning as you suggest at the start, it is about reducing demand for drastically-overexploited shark populations.

    This had led to 1/3 of shark species being threatened (the status of 1/2 is completely unknown) and up to fins from up to 73 million sharks being used every year. In the few places where shark fishing has any kind of regulation, marine reserves, they are fished illegally because of this excess demand.

    If passed this bill will prevent fins from illegally-taken and finned sharks caught all around the world being sold in California, but it will also remove the role of California as probably the largest source of demand for shark fin outside of Asia. It will also send a very clear message to other jurisdictions throughout the world that the shark crisis is sufficiently serious that action, not platitudes, are required. It will assist in the already strong movement in China led by Yao Ming and actively supported by business leaders and the government of China to reduce demand for shark fin soup.

    Shark fins can currently be imported without any kind of restriction (other than health) on their source or origins. All current legislation only applies to shark fishing within US waters.

    We have heard the “Costco sells shark steak” argument before with rhinos and elephants. A rhino dies of old age what is the problem with using the horn ? The problem is lucrative markets for untraceable products don’t wait around for animals to die or fish at sustainable levels, they grab whatever they can as quickly as they can regardless of ethics or laws.

    The very small shark meat market is easy to identify and source and primarily comes from relatively well managed US fisheries. That said many shark populations in the NE Atlantic crashed under “good” management and a review of the sustainability of these fisheries would probably be smart.

    Yee’s assertion “This is another example in a long line of examples of insensitivity to the culture and traditions of the Asian American community.” bears much closer scrutiny. You find the reason certain practices have faced regulation is they break health standards or risk conservation problems. The problem of rice cakes was not a cultural bash it was because the manner of their preparation is considered unsafe by health authorities. Yee’s effort was to exempt potentially hazardous food from being refrigerated after 4 hours lying around. Effectively he was fighting for lower health standards for the Asian American population.

    I agree with Yee that regulations on live animals should apply to pet stores where appropriate, but live animal bans were to prevent introduction of invasive species that could overrun native Californian species, not to attack a culture. Shipping animals around live (as opposed to processed) is a hangover from the days before refrigeration.

    It is sad that shark fin is served as a healthy food when it contains high levels of the toxin methylmercury. Indeed you could argue that as all large predatory fish on sale now have to carry a clearly posted mercury warning shark fin soup should do the same. Every menu should warn pregnant women to avoid it. I once met a doctor in a hospital in Taiwan with a patient with severe mercury poisoning. When looking into the causes he discovered she had won the lottery and had eaten shark fin soup every day believing it to be healthy, only to be poisoned by it.

    Assemblyman Jared Huffman is absolutely correct in his assertion that strictly regulating imports is unaffordable and impractical, let alone policing shark fishing and finning operations internationally, which is jurisdictionally and functionally impossible.

    You ask “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.”

    As someone who has investigated wildlife crime in more than 40 countries worldwide and worked on the shark fin trade in 13 countries, I can tell you.
    1) The vast majority of Asian Americans would totally respect the ban and the reasons for it. They would simply order another dish with the same broth with a different filler. You can even call it “faux shark fin or green shark fin or something which makes reference. Many places are already doing it. 1/3 of weddings in Singapore last year for example served something else.

    2) Enforcement at the retail level is way simpler than at the border level. An undercover survey of restaurants is quick easy and cheap. Checking every shipment of goods that enter the US a lot more challenging.

    3) A ban is much easier to enforce than regulation especially when the illegal activities may be taking place across the over side of the world and shark fins are hard to distinguish and sourcing to location almost impossible.

    You say “I can’t imagine people would simply give up consuming it without feeling wronged in some way.”
    I can tell you millions of Asians (youth especially) have given up shark fin soup and feel very good about their decision to protect the environment or reduce animal cruelty. I can also tell you that there are many alternatives to shark fin soup. Don’t forget shark fin is tasteless, but you can use exactly the same broth with a melon which has similar texture to shark fin, mushroom strips, crab meat and other substitutes. I am told the exact texture can also be replicated using beef cartilege.

    The bill doesn’t take “the easy road” that would be some meaningless regulation that would be ineffective and unenforced, it takes the only practical and realistic path given the dire state of sharks and given that California is not in a position to subsidize the shark fin industry by paying for a ton of regulation (which would probably be ineffective).

    “Would a ban make people want the product any less?” you ask.

    Absolutely, people look to their governments to protect the environment, prevent animal cruelty and protect them from potentially toxic substances. If the government doesn’t act they assume there isn’t a problem. Shark fin is not addictive and associated with poverty and despair like drugs, it is about status and wealth and if it is socially unacceptable to consume it and illegal, people will move to the many other means of doing this, like other dishes or an expensive wine.

    Your arguments were used to oppose banning ivory trade, but when it happened the price of ivory went down to 1/8 of its former value overnight. The opposition said it would go through the roof. From a 50% decline in African elephant populations in 20 years (while ivory trade was being “strictly-regulated”), elephant numbers stabilized and poaching was drastically reduced. Poaching only goes up when there is speculation on re-opening the market or a new source of demand is introduced (the new affluence in mainland China).

    Do you think that many people would want to make a wedding or business banquet illegal just to have shark fin in their soup when there are plenty of other dishes they could serve? Imagine the loss of face that would involve.

    This bill won’t be passed hastily, it will take time, there will be hearings and it will undergo great debate. This is an ongoing debate that I have been involved over the last thirteen years in which time literally billions of sharks have died and a large number become endangered so for me “hasty” is a relative term.

    Patience is a good thing, delay can be disastrous.

    The debate is not really will the practice of eating shark fin end, it is how it ends with grace and dignity or in shame. If we carry on with the demand and unenforceable “regulation” we will simply run out of sharks with all the knock on effects to marine ecosystems and “tradition” will inevitably be the villain in the history books.

    Or instead of defending the indefensible and delaying the inevitable Senator Yee could do what we reached out to him to do prior to any bill and embrace necessary change in a positive way, help us actively and aggressively promote Chinese alternatives to shark fin and the delights of sustainable Chinese cuisine to mitigate any possible loss of income to restauranteurs, celebrate the adaptability and resourcefulness that has enabled Chinese culture to endure and the true compassion of Asian values, such as its deep seated respect of balance, nature, modesty and not being wasteful*.

    Now that would be true leadership worthy of a San Francisco mayor!

  4. American
    American says:

    I love that America is the so culturally diverse and for the most part, culturally sensitive. I say let the Chinese keep their traditions. Place harsher punishment/fines on illegal shark finning.
    Let those traditional Chinese American keep their culture but place a luxury tax on the item. The money from harsh poacher fines and legal fin selling tax should all go to shark conservation.

    Why waste the fins when it could be put into good use to preserve future sharks? You would also be culturally sensitive to the Chinese Americans that practices old traditions.

    In addition, those restaurants that sell shark fin soup should be required by law to also provide sharkfin-substitute soup on the menu.

  5. American
    American says:

    Read the article. Finning is already illegal. The question is what do you do with the fins on a shark that is caught accidentally and have died already. The new bill would ban using the fins even though shark meat and skin is ok to use. Why picking on the Chinese culture? Go after the illegal poachers (heck I’m all for de-limbing those criminals).

  6. Bill Wong
    Bill Wong says:

    First, a ban unquestionably would help protect the sharks from extinction. The bans on elephant tusks and rhino horns have effectively reduced the decimation of these species.

    And since when does the threat of black market affect what we do legislatively? If that were the case, why do we have any laws whatsoever? Drugs, guns, etc.?

    Lastly, cultures adapt to accommodate reality. That is why a number of prominent proud Asian Pacific Americans support the ban on shark fin, including: restaurateur Charles Phan (the Slanted Door), chef Martin Yan, journalist Lisa Ling, actress Kelly Hu, author Belle Yang, and Jazz musician Dan Kuramoto. These APAs are no less proud of their culture and many of them believe that the Asian cultural belief in living in harmony with nature overrules the customary practice of consuming shark fin.

  7. Matt Marin
    Matt Marin says:

    If we were afraid, bullied, or blackmailed into NOT passing laws because of cult, culture, or “tradition,” we’d allow the brutal practices that happen in other cultures (bull fighting, cock-dog fighting, bear dogging, throwing goats out of four-story windows and aggravating bulls in a ring with darts before killing them (Spain). NO, we pass laws to outlaw both idiotic cruelty, and/or, just, if-not-more, importantly, environment impacts. At some point, the cult supporters have to realize they’re living in the U.S., which for the most part is a civilized, law and order society. Watch the videos of finless sharks as they sink to the bottom, trying to swim with their appendages removed. Think of anyone without limbs so tossed, and ask yourself if this practice has any merit.
    Pass the law to ban shark finning; and then move on to the disgusting live food markets everywhere. As a society treats animals, so it’s capable of treating all animals.

  8. Eric Mills
    Eric Mills says:

    Reporter Kim ignores (purposely?) a key element of this story: THE PRIMARY AUTHOR OF ASSEMBLY BILL 376 IS ASSEMBLYMEMBER PAUL FONG (D-Mt. View). Unlike Senator Yee (D-San Francisco), Assemblymember Fong (of Asian descent himself, born in Macao) puts environmental protection and animal welfare ahead of an archaic and horrendously cruel practice and human greed. It’s more likely that Senator Yee is pandering to a few of his well-heeled San Francisco connections, as he plans to run for the San Francisco mayor’s office this fall. Sad to see, for he’s been a strong supporter in the past of most environmental and animal welfare issues. But he’s certainly dropped the ball on this one. Politics, anyone?

    And, ethic and science aside, it’s a bad political move on Yee’s part. I’m betting that the majority of his constituents, Asian-American or otherwise, support Assemblymember Fong’s commonsense legislation. Or will do so, once they learn the facts.

    A reported 70-100 MILLION sharks are mutilated and trashed annually throughout the world in this brutal trade. (SEE THE MANY ON-LINE VIDEOS.) And for what? SOUP AND SUPERSTITION. There’s an absurd belief among many shark fin soup enthusiasts that the dish is an aphrodisiac. Yeah, right. (And just what the world needs, more humans.) Get real, people! Shark fins are mostly just gristle, chewy and tasteless (unless you like rubber). And pricey–it’s a status item to lord it over your neighbors. Fins cost anywhere from $300-$700 per pound. Is the cruelty and the destruction of the marine ecosystem worth it?

    Here’s an idea: BOYCOTT ALL RESTAURANTS WHICH OFFER SHARK FIN SOUP, AND LET THE MANAGEMENT KNOW WHY. Shouldn’t put anyone out of business, since there are no restaurants which sell shark fin soup only. Besides, this is an UNETHICAL and UNSUSTAINABLE business from the get-go.

    It should further be noted that Senator Yee was a key player in the State Fish & Game Commission’s recent reversal of the frog/turtle ban in the live food markets, all of which are diseased and parasitized. California annually imports TWO MILLION American bullfrogs from Taiwan, plus 300,000-400,000 thousand freshwater turtles for human consumption, all taken from the wild in states east of the Rockies, depleting local populations. When released into California waters, a common though illegal practice, they cause environmental havoc, introducing diseases and parasites, and preying upon and displacing native species, such as the red-legged and yellow-legged frogs, the western pond turtle (our only native species), and the fry of gamefish. Indeed, the Commission has received nearly 4,000 letters in support of the ban, from the likes of United Anglers of California, CalTrout, the Sierra Club, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, etc. Heck, Huey Johnson, former Resources Secretary, wrote twice in support of the ban. The Dept. of Fish & Game continues to ignore its mandate to protect our native natural resources. Thanks a lot, Senator Yee!

    ALL LEGISLATORS MAY BE WRITTEN C/O THE STATE CAPITOL, SACRAMENTO, CA 95814. Support etters are needed NOW. And thank Assemblymember Fong for ntroducing this legislation. The bill has not yet been assigned to committee, but it’s likely to go to the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, chaired by Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), a co-sponsor of the bill. And Assemblymember Fong, the bill’s primary author, also sits on this committee. That’s hopeful.

    So please write your state reps and urge their support for this progressive and much-needed legislation. San Francisco’s Senator Mark Leno, and Assemblymember Fiona Ma and Tom Ammiano esp. need to hear from their constituents. Senator Yee, too, showing him the errof or his ways.

    Eric Mills, coordinator

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