Shark Fins Out

On Valentine’s Day 2011, California Assemblymen Jared Huffman and Paul Fong introduced their bill making it illegal for anyone in the state to say “Be Mine” to shark fins. Specifically, the bill would make it a crime for “any person to possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin…” The bill points out how sharks are slow to reproduce but integral to the ocean ecosystem and the health of marine biodiversity and that reducing demand in California markets may positively affect shark population. California’s bill follows legislation passed in HawaiiOregon and Washington states are also considering a similar legislative ban.

San Francisco Chronicle has good background on the story. It points out that California State Senator Leland Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, is calling the bill an “attack on Asian culture.” There’s a weird quote from him in the article lamenting the fate of fins from all that shark steak sold at Costco (and inspiring new questions, like how much shark steak does this come out to? and what do they do with those fins?). It ignores the fact that Costco is probably dealing with different shark parts. The practice of “finning” involves cutting fins off live sharks and dumping the rest of the shark to swim with, and oh, be eaten by, the fishes.

Clearly, in this case, the environment trumps a status symbol cultural practice. Granted, I understand how defensive one can get when somebody attacks your culture’s food, something near and dear to many hearts. But put this shark fin ban story up against other declining marine stock’s stories and the culture thing is not as easy to digest. Hyphen‘s Bernice Yeung asks similar questions regarding culture vs conservation, and Salon‘s Francis Lam has an insightful take in his column the Ethics of Eating:

It’s not that this ban is “racist” as some have put it, it’s that it’s the kind of thing that smells a bit of cynical political posturing, scoring cheap environmental points because no politician is going to lose any votes that matter. Get rid of a grody-sounding food that only the Chinese are stupid enough to save up their money for? Easy! Try to take away the endangered tuna from voters’ Friday night sushi date, though, and there’ll be hell to pay.

Word up!

Unfortunately, the cultural argument apparently still carries some power — in February, California also lifted a ban on importing frogs and turtles as food caving to pressure from store owners and 6 legislators that argue that the ban “unfairly targets Asian-American business owners.”

We also shouldn’t forget that the protection of species such as sharks and bluefin tuna encounter breakdowns and challenges in regulation because there are different stories going on at state, national, and especially international levels. In spring 2010, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a voluntary international agreement among governments to regulate trade of endangered species, failed to protect 7 out of 8 shark species, influenced by Japan and China. And Japan was convincing in its message that there would be hell to pay in influencing CITES’s failure to ban bluefin tuna. (The U.S. actually backed the ban on international bluefin trade.) On the international level, sure it’s about culture, but it’s also about the $$$$$s. At least these local bans may do something to change demand and attitudes – immigrant, minority, or whatever – to eat more sustainably.

Let’s not forget, people don’t really care about fish and sea creatures that aren’t dolphins when they’re not so cuddly and cute.

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