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Proposed Shark Fin Ban Making Waves in San Francisco

A bill moving through the California state legislature that would ban the sale, distribution and possession of shark fins is making waves among San Francisco’s sizable Chinese-American population.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the bill, AB376, is opposed by many Chinese-Americans, including San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, who regard shark fin soup as a delicacy and an important dish in their cuisine. Lee says he enjoys eating shark fin soup “at weddings or at special occasions.” Henry Cheung, president of San Francisco-based Charlie Seafood Inc., says the proposed ban amounts to cultural discrimination. “This is traditional for us,” he told the Chronicle. “When you say no to shark fin, that’s profiling.” California state senator Leland Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, also played the culture card, calling AB376 “an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine.” Funny, since the Chronicle points out that Yee voted for a 2004 ban on foie gras, which is made by force-feeding geese using a tube shoved down their throats. He didn’t call it an attack on French culture. He did the right thing.

But San Francisco is nearly 1/3 Asian. San Francisco city and county is home to the country’s largest Chinese-American population and oldest Chinatown. But not all Chinese are against the ban. A poll commissioned by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates found that 70% of Chinese-American voters in California supported the proposed ban, only 6% less than the number of all Californians who were for it. One of the bill’s sponsors, Assemblyman Paul Fong, is himself of Chinese extraction. San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, both of whom are also running for mayor this year, appeared at a news conference and voiced their support for the proposed ban. Prominent local restaurateurs such as Betelnut’s Alex Ong and Benu’s Corey Lee are also supporting AB376. They say that the texture of the shark fin is actually more important than the taste– it has none– and that there are excellent alternatives to fins, such as sea cucumber, abalone or even starch.

“The flavor of shark fin is all about the soup it’s cooked in,” Benu’s Lee told the Chronicle. “The shark has no taste.”

Even NBA superstar Yao Ming has jumped into the fray, appearing on ads adorning the sides of city buses that urge people to “join me, say no to shark fin soup.”

There are lots of things that are part of peoples’ culture that are still cruel and ought not to happen. Female genital mutilation in Africa immediately comes to mind. Ditto bullfighting in Spain, or, for that matter, the factory farming system in the United States. Slavery was part of American culture for centuries. That doesn’t mean it should have been protected. Those who cry about their fin-eating culture being under attack should be forced to sit through a screening of Rob Stewart’s chillingly beautiful Shark Water, which vividly documents the barbaric cruelty of the finning industry, which claims the lives of an astounding 73 million sharks each year. Most of the animals, ancient apex predators who help maintain the delicate balance of life in the world’s most important ecosystem, are killed solely for their fins, which are lopped off before the wounded and helpless sharks are mercilessly tossed back into the ocean.

But with shark fin soup selling for as much as $80 a bowl, sharks’ suffering takes a back seat to the almighty dollar.

There is hope. Hawaii has already banned shark fins, and Oregon and Washington may soon follow suit. Here’s hoping that California’s menus are soon shark fin-free too.



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