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.]