A few weeks ago, California lawmakers Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 376, which proposes to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins in California. The bill has set off a passionate debate, as shark fin’s soup is seen as a thousand-year-plus tradition in Chinese culture. State Senator Leland Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, has even declared the proposed ban an ‘”attack on Asian culture,”‘according to SfGate.com.
I have to say, the way one gets shark fins for shark fin soup is a pretty terrible attack on the sharks. Shark finning is a brutal and violent practice in which fins are hacked off a live shark, which is then left to die as it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Marine biologists say there has been a 99 percent decline in oceanic whitetip sharks in the Gulf of Mexico over the last 15 years and a 89 percent decline in hammerhead sharks in the northwest Atlantic. Overall, scientists say that as many as 90 percent of sharks in the world’s open oceans have disappeared.
Currently, dried shark fin in San Francisco’s Chinatown sales for between $178 and $500 a pound in San Francisco. Shark fin’s soup costs between $250 and $500 for ten people. SfGate.com notes that the soup
……has been a traditional dish at banquets going back as far as the Han Dynasty, 1,800 years ago, when emperors and royals began consuming it. It is considered one of the four “treasures” of Chinese cuisine, along with abalone; fish maw, or bladder; and sea cucumber.
With the growth of the Chinese middle and upper classes, demand for the soup has increased, as one way to show that a family has ‘arrived’ and attained often hard-won economic success.
Opponents of the bill argue that an ‘existing federal ban against shark finning by U.S. registered vessels is adequate protection’: Sharks cannot be imported into the US unless the entire shark is captured and used:
Michael Kwong, a local seafood processor whose family has been in the business since 1905, said sharks are not even targeted by fishermen.
“It’s usually a bycatch, but when they do catch a shark, they are going to use it. The entire carcass gets used,” said Kwong, one of several restaurateurs and business owners who accompanied [State Senator] Yee at a news conference opposing AB376. “If this bill passes, there will be a lot of collateral damage.”
However, as SfGate.com notes, the federal law ‘does not apply to foreign-registered vessels, and it does not ban the sale of shark fins’ and is, in the words of Assembly Huffman, ‘”toothless.”‘
As a third-generation Chinese-American who still remembers my aunts whispering to me that I needed to drink each drop of my bowl of shark fin’s soup—only something we saw at fancy banquets—with care, I’m with Assemblyman Huffman, and I’m also with Assemblyman Paul Fong, the Silicon Valley Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. As the New York Times quotes him in an article about this ‘tempest in a soup pot’:
“It’s a horrific scene,” he said of finning. “Being environmentally conscious, I took the scientists’ side.”
Though I kind of want to ask Assemblyman Fong, was he expecting the bill to cause such a, um, souphaha when he decided to co=sponsor it?
The New York Times also quotes 27-year-old Jennifer Cheung, who said no to the soup at a Chinese New year celebration:
“I come from a culture where food is very important….But I think this is a very hefty price to pay just for a bowl of soup.”
Leaving aside such not-really-Chinese-Chinese-food items like fortune cookies and chop suey, certainly there are plenty of other traditional foods that one can make, and certainly many other ways of celebrating and carrying on Chinese traditions and cultures than shark fin soup. Somehow, I think Chinese culture will survive without shark fin soup.I for one can live without it
(I’m a vegetarian, as it is.)
To take more action, sign the petition to Ban The Sale of Shark Fins In California.
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