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California's proposed shark-fin ban


Fat Guy
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I missed this brewing California controversy until I saw this story in the New York Times. Apparently, California is on the brink of outlawing the importation and sale of shark fins, which most notably impacts Chinese restaurants that serve shark-fin soup.

The article, filed from San Francisco, contains this choice piece of language:

"in a city where food and the environment are perhaps equal obsessions, the politics of soup has also highlighted a generational divide between eco-conscious children and their tradition-bound elders."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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No idea of the status the shark species that are hunted for their fins, but if their numbers are declining alarmingly, it makes sense to take a break from hunting them, even if it's simply to ensure that future generations can avail themselves of what is clearly an important traditional dish; 'eat 'em all now' is short-sighted, no matter how you look at it.

On the other hand, to characterize environmental consciousness and indifference as generational phenomena seems uninformed and needlessly insulting.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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I'm not really comfy with legislating food morality but it's been proven way too many times that people in general are not very good at moderating themselves... so I concede the need at times even if I oppose the concept in general. As for whether or not the need exists in this case, I'm not informed enough on the subject to make a personal judgement.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Clearly without legislation most of us earthlings are not able to regulate our food sources so they are protected from extinction, free from mercury and other harmful chemicals, or sustainably fished or hunted. Good-bye Passenger Pigeon, true cod, Chilean Sea bass, Bluefin Tuna, etc, etc. I'm sure we can all name something we grew up eating and have a wonderful ritualistic feeling about that is either no longer available or unhealthy. If you are going to decimate the planet, that's what you get. Maybe when we were bringing down a skyful of passenger pigeons we didn't know any better. But we do now.

Why is it okay for any given cultural habit not to be scrutinized and evaluated as to whether or not it's a practice harmful to the planet? Why should science and progress be trumped by traditional food practices that can only end badly anyway? As for sharks, the population is way way down, the practice of finning is cruel, causing the shark to die slowly as it sinks to the ocean floor, to say nothing of the fact that they are full of mercury anyway. And honestly, although there are not plenty of other fish in the sea, there are plenty of other nutritious soups. If a culture depends upon only one source of food for its livelihood, they better come up with a way to farm it. And if a cultural food practice is deemed necessary to maintaining the culture itself, well, maybe that culture needs to adapt. How much evidence do we need that adaptation to new circumstances is a positive thing? And of course the darker side isn't about the end of cultural traditions, it's about money. The value of shark fins or tiger penises or ivory just keeps going up the fewer sharks, tigers and elephants there are.

There is certainly a generational component. My daughter and her friends have grown up in a different world than I did; they are by nature and nurture more ecologically savvy than we were at their age, or than many of us are now. Given the scientific advances in the last 30 years and the increased awareness of just how fragile our ecosystem is, wouldn't you hope so?

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As a side note- how many times have I seen a blogger or other writer talk about how the taste was not exactly a wow and that the issue is all tradition and a display of wealth. That one I am comfortable with falling by the wayside.

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Nowadays they do make faux shark fins (made from gelatin?). And I've been told that swallow's nest soup has become just as expensive as shark's fin soup, so restaurants could switch over to that.

Edited by sheetz (log)
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I agree with others on this board. No food is sacrosanct, especially when the harvesting practice is causing a decrease in shark populations worldwide. It's true that this particular ban affects the Chinese community, but it's not aimed at the Chinese community. If Poles ate shark's fin soup, Poles would be affected.

Nowadays they do make faux shark fins (made from gelatin?). And I've been told that swallow's nest soup has become just as expensive as shark's fin soup, so restaurants could switch over to that.

Swallow's nest soup might be the next traditional food to go down. Harvesting in the wild is supposed to be regulated by counting how many bloody nests the birds literally cough up. The birds keep building nests as people take them away. Eventually the birds become so stressed that they cough up blood with the saliva for nestbuilding. Too many bloody nests over a certain number, and people are deemed to be overharvesting. The fact that any birds are reduced to coughing up blood to build their nests, as they are compelled to do by instinct, troubles me. As with shark's fin, we're talking about a gelatinous, expensive delicacy. I'd welcome faux bird's nest, too.

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Sorry if I'm going off thread with this.

^Swallow's nests are harvested largely on farms nowadays.

http://www.good.is/post/factory-farming-birds-nests-to-make-more-soup/

Nevertheless, the problem remains. As long as the nests are removed, the birds will continue to cough to build nests. If anything, these birds are less protected than birds in the wild. Supposedly in a wild harvest the birds must be left alone once a certain number of bloody nests is reached. There appear to be no such protections here. Another part of the problem: in the wild, these birds always return to the same nesting place. No one knows how the farmers attract and keep the birds coming to the structures, but that returning instinct may play a part. IOW, the birds are compelled to nest in a certain place, and continue to cough up saliva to build nest after nest, even to the point they cough up blood.

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I enjoyed Fuchsia Dunlop's pieces about it, though the BBC piece doesn't seem to be up anymore. Some basic points at:

http://www.fuchsiadunlop.com/sharks-fin-encore/

I think it's a really tricky area - a lot of the reason it's so easy to bring up this sort of legislation is that

a) Most folks in the US don't eat shark's fin soup, and it seems like something that "those people" eat

b) It's a luxury item

Obviously, fur and foie gras production certainly are cruel, but the reason that they're more widely protested than, say, the plight of egg-laying chickens or dairy cows, is because they're luxury items. People can feel all warm and fuzzy about how compassionate they are, and, at the same time, feel like an "average Joe". For a country like the US, where virtually everyone considers themself to be "middle class", there's not a lot of sympathy for luxury items.

Similarly, eating dog and cat are seen as horrible (in US society) when eating pig or cow is generally not.

This is not to say that shark fin consumption doesn't have some potential environmental issues, but meat production (in terms of raw numbers) is probably a greater threat to the environment (and causes more animal suffering) than shark finning ever will.

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This is not to say that shark fin consumption doesn't have some potential environmental issues, but meat production (in terms of raw numbers) is probably a greater threat to the environment (and causes more animal suffering) than shark finning ever will.

Your points are well taken. However, as I see it, the two issues are not exactly analogous. It's probably true that shark finning has less effect on our environment than meat production. One could argue that both practices have an inhumane component. However, shark finning has resulted in a decrease in the worldwide shark population. I would say shark finning is analogous to the irresponsible hunting of buffalo or the dodo bird in previous centuries, with severe depletion or extinction of the species. To me, that's the issue here.

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However, shark finning has resulted in a decrease in the worldwide shark population. I would say shark finning is analogous to the irresponsible hunting of buffalo or the dodo bird in previous centuries, with severe depletion or extinction of the species. To me, that's the issue here.

Yes - that's a good point - I'm not sure what the risk of extinction of shark species from shark finning is, but certainly it's higher than the risk of any domesticated food animal becoming extinct. And as China's middle class continues to grow, not to mention as the population of overseas Chinese in affluent countries grows, the demand for shark fin will most likely continue to grow if unchecked.

That said, given the amount of sharks already caught as "bycatch" of conventional fishing, I'm wondering just how common the practice of finning really is (perhaps the type of shark is different?), and, more to the point, I wonder which of the two actually contributes more to extinction of various shark species.

edit: This article seems to have some interesting information on the subject:

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aqDhZV6UrWng

especially:

Hammerheads are endangered and known to have “exceptionally high-value fins and exceptionally low-value meat, so they often fall victims to shark-finning,” the practice of cutting off the animal’s fin and discarding the carcass, Fordham said.

Edited by Will (log)
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I grew up eating shark fin as my grandfather and other family members were in the restaurant business in Hong Kong. The problem I have with it now is how shark fins are being collected. I'm a firm believer of using the whole animal. If we kill an animal for food, we should be respectful enough to use the entire animal. I'm not opposed to eating shark fin if the sharks were caught as a whole and we use up all the parts. The way its done now, taking the fins and then dumpling the sharks back in the ocean to die is more than cruel. Being close to extinction or not, you just don't treat an animal this way. If someone cut off a pig's leg to make ham and just let the pig die a slow death, I think many of us would have a problem with it.

The last time I was in Hong Kong (Sept 2010), there were even ads on TV urging people not to consume shark fin due to cruelty. When we had a banquet, my husband and I insisted that shark fin not be part of the meal. I know we've had a long tradition of eating shark fin, but we didn't start out treating sharks this way. Once upon a time, the whole shark was being used. Until we start doing that again, I will just have to stick with imitation shark fin, which I love anyway.

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Does anyone actually think that shark fin has good flavor? It's hard to tell if it really contributes much flavor to soups when they use a rich stock to begin with.

I can confidently say the texture is unimpressive. Mung bean noodle is almost the same.

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It's true that this particular ban affects the Chinese community, but it's not aimed at the Chinese community. If Poles ate shark's fin soup, Poles would be affected.

There are hundreds of species of different endangered animals that are consumed in California, yet only sharkfin has been targeted. Why? Because only the Chinese, a small minority group, eat it. If it was something which the non-Chinese ate, like bluefin, there would be no such ban. If we don't want to call it racist although there's certainly a racist undercurrent that inevitably crop up about shark fin soup, then its certainly politcal posturing at its finest- the legislators get to talk up their enviornmentalism by targetings something only a minority group eat all the while ignoring more pressing, important enviornmental issuses.

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Most chinese restaurants in London have withdrawn sharks fin from the menu after a campaign by Gordon Ramsay - it's a pretty nasty industry

Wow, what a guy... So, its okay for him to fish for and kill endangered sharks for sport, but its not okay when others want to eat them?

Why is he even lecturing others what to serve when he was serving endangered animals after his campaign? If he wants to do something, why not focus on the endangered fishes and animals that he serves at his restaurants and which his audience eats instead of going after a chinese delicary that he and his eaters weren't going to eat in the first place. It must be so much easier and convienent to lecture others about what not to eat instead of looking in the mirror.

Edited by mcohen (log)
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It's true that this particular ban affects the Chinese community, but it's not aimed at the Chinese community. If Poles ate shark's fin soup, Poles would be affected.

There are hundreds of species of different endangered animals that are consumed in California, yet only sharkfin has been targeted. Why? Because only the Chinese, a small minority group, eat it. If it was something which the non-Chinese ate, like bluefin, there would be no such ban. If we don't want to call it racist although there's certainly a racist undercurrent that inevitably crop up about shark fin soup, then its certainly politcal posturing at its finest- the legislators get to talk up their enviornmentalism by targetings something only a minority group eat all the while ignoring more pressing, important enviornmental issuses.

California has a long history of being at the forefront of environmental protection and animal welfare laws. This law only targets shark fin because that is the only intent of the law. There are other laws which affect different issues ranging from stricter auto emissions to egg-laying chickens to animal rights. I fail to see how this law targets the Chinese any more than a law banning cock-fighting targets Hispanics.

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I was surprised to see it characterized here as a California issue because (though indeed this particular legislation is in California) shark-fin shearing (accurately and gruesomely described upthread) has been internationally controversial for many years; this was merely one local reaction to it.

There are hundreds of species of different endangered animals that are consumed in California, yet only sharkfin has been targeted. Why? Because only the Chinese, a small minority group, eat it...

First, the initial premise above is completely wrong (here in California, even some non-endangered animals are banned or effectively unavailable for food use, a matter of fashionable sentiment as much as of the animals' reality; ironically shark fins happens to be one instance with strong widely recognized objective basis). Second, hunting some creatures -- whales, elephants just for their ivory tusks -- has long been internationally illegal and shunned for obvious reasons, seldom characterized as racism against the various few cultures that persisted in these practices. Third, I wonder if it's really necessary to read some personal interpretation into this widely-acknowledged situation (local ban supporters whom I know are mainly Chinese) and post it as a pure assertion? Where's the evidence, if any?

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I agree with Florida and MaxH

This isn't aimed at any particular ethnic group. It is aimed at stopping a truly obnoxious and WASTEFUL practice.

Note that the fishermen are not all Chinese - some are Hispanic, some are Anglos and some are who knows what.

The thing I don't like is that the shark meat is certainly marketable and edible but it costs more to clean, gut and ice down big fish, while they can shear off fins and toss the rest back with less effort and it doesn't spoil as rapidly and doesn't require cleaning. I have no objection to harvesting the entire shark - shark meat is good.

It is true that California has been at the forefront of banning foods that are harmful to an animal population. God knows that if there were not enormous fines, there would not be any more California brown bears because of the idiots who think that eating bear paws confers some additional masculinity. When it can cost $50,000. in fines, poachers think twice before "harvesting" a bear. When the fines were less, poaching was rampant.

I don't like that some ethnic groups in their own countries eat dogs, but that is their country, their dogs and their laws, so in my opinion they can do what they like.

When a practice happens in international waters or in US waters and affects the population of animals and fish that migrate through these waters, it should be everyone's concern. Once they are gone, there is no going back. We have only to look at the history of the Passenger Pigeon to see what can happen - from billions to zero in just a few decades.

Edited by andiesenji (log)

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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