The roiling rhetoric that has washed over San Francisco since two California assemblymen introduced a bill banning the statewide sale and import of shark's fin has left many people in the city sputtering. AB-376 has brought out a host of accusations of animal cruelty, ecological devastation, and racism.

Most of the articles covering the horrific practice of shark-finning the bill is trying to prevent — in which fishing boats capture live sharks by the thousand, slice off their fins, then throw them back in the water to die — report that shark's fin is flavorless and chewy, which leaves many Westerners puzzled as well as traumatized. But there's a reason it is ubiquitous in Chinese wedding banquets and New Year's dinners: The pleasure one takes in eating shark's fin, like other delicacies such as sea cucumber, fish maw, and jellyfish, is in savoring its texture. To discuss only the flavors within a Chinese dish is like trying to sculpt something in 2-D.

The controversy is so compelling, and the bewilderment of many of my non-Chinese friends so complete, that it brought me to Great Eastern, one of Chinatown's best-known seafood restaurants, to eat something I have avoided for many years and hope to avoid for many more: a bowl of shark's fin and crab soup.

At Great Eastern, the soup can be ordered by the individual portion, though each costs $32. When I received my half-pint bowl, I could see tufts of crabmeat floating below the surface of a thick, clear brown broth, which seemed to have ripples frozen within it. When I raised up a spoonful to look, the ripples revealed themselves to be hundreds of delicately arced, transparent threads of cartilage, each the size of a pine needle.

Despite its price, the soup was no culinary masterpiece. The pork-and-chicken broth lacked complexity and depth, if not cornstarch. But the shark's fin was exquisite: Each filament was silky and jellied, but with a delicately chewy texture. As I sipped the soup, the filaments fluttered against every surface of my mouth, impossible to pinpoint, like walking through the mist halo of a sprinkler and trying to identify where each drop lands on your skin.

"Shark's fin takes an enormous amount of work to prepare," says Cecilia Chiang, at 92 still one of the country's most respected Chinese-American restaurateurs. When she ran the Mandarin, her San Francisco restaurant, she used to fly to Japan to carry back top-quality ingredients to serve as Shanghainese-style red-cooked shark's fin. The cooking process, she recounts, took more than a week. "You have to soak the shark's fin for five days to soften it, changing the water every day," she says. "Then you wrap it in pork caul fat and steam it for two days. If you steam it too long, the shark's fin turns to jelly, so you have to steam it for a while, let it cool, then steam it again. It takes a lot of skill to get the texture right." Cantonese shark's fin soup follows much the same procedure as the red-cooked version: a long soak, followed by several days of cooking, and finally a simmer in a flavorful stock that itself has taken days to prepare.

The reputation of shark's fin as a luxury ingredient dates back to the days when catching a live shark was an arduous experience, and its cartilage was a rare presence on the tables of the elite. Now, thanks in part to exploding demand, dried shark's fin, which can cost hundreds of dollars per pound, has become a lucrative trade. The Save Our Seas Foundation estimates that between 26 and 73 million sharks are finned every year — all over the world, including U.S. waters — and dozens of species are now on the verge of collapse. More than 90 percent of shark's fins caught are destined for China and Hong Kong, but American activists say that California is the second largest market in the country. What we do here has a small impact, but one that may well resonate across the ocean.

The many national anti-shark-finning laws that have been passed around the world, including the federal Shark Conservation Act that President Barack Obama signed into law on Jan. 4, are filled with loopholes and have had little effect on international trade. Assemblymen Paul Fong and Jared Huffman's bill, which resembles a Hawaii state law passed in April 2010, basically argues that since we can't control supply, we have to cut off demand.

That approach, state Sen. Leland Yee argued in response to AB-376, constituted an "unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine." (He has since pulled back on his stance, arguing instead that a blanket ban outlaws fins from sharks caught for their meat or species whose status is not endangered.) Yee's comment has infuriated many Chinese-Americans who see no discrepancy between cultural heritage and environmental conservation.

One of them is Slanted Door owner Charles Phan, whose heritage is Vietnamese Chinese. The sponsors of the bill recruited Phan to join them at the initial press conference. Phan says that before the event, several chefs from prominent Cantonese restaurants called him, asking him not to appear. Why were they worried? "Because they didn't want to stop selling shark's fin," he says; it's unclear whether they were motivated by cultural or financial terms. Since the press conference, Phan says the response he has received from people in the industry has been 20-to-one positive. Yet when I asked him if he could point me to a local chef who'd given up serving shark's fin soup, he couldn't identify anyone, and I haven't found one yet.


Bill Wong, a member of the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance, a new group that coalesced during the period when Fong and Huffman were sounding out Asian Pacific American organizations to measure their support for a possible ban, points out that shark's fin may be part of Chinese cultural heritage, but it doesn't have a symbolic role like so many other Chinese foods. Wong says, "At Chinese new year banquets, for example, the Chinese serve noodles because the length of the noodle represents long life. Shark's fin doesn't have that same connection to cultural beliefs, other than the fact that it's a rare commodity." Phan echoed Wong's assessments, adding that dried shark's fin is something people bring as a gift when they don't know what else to bring.

Even Chiang, who says she loves shark's fin, laughs when I ask her about its role in Chinese cuisine. "It is a mark of status," she says. But, she adds, her concern genuine, "If I don't serve shark's fin, how will the meal be special?"

That question is a critical one. It's easy for people to pooh-pooh another cuisine's luxury foods. But status is important. It isn't just about showing off your wealth; it's about showing respect to the people you're buying dinner for, or inviting to your wedding, or celebrating a red egg and ginger party with. It is about finding concrete ways to honor your guests' presence as much as adding luster to your own. One of the issues that AB-376 proponents will have to wrangle with isn't just convincing chefs why shark-finning is wrong, but also how they can replace it.


While some may see AB-376 as yet one more white American attack on Chinese culinary practices, Europeans and Americans have also caused the collapse of a fishery thanks to their appetites for a luxury product: Caspian Sea caviar. The collapse of the Soviet Union into several states bordering on the sea, combined with rampant poaching and illegal trade, effectively cleared the Caspian of beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviar within a short decade or two. In 2005, the United States banned the sale and import of beluga caviar; starting last year, many countries cut off the import of osetra and sevruga as well.

I asked Michel Emery, director of sales for Petrossian Caviar in New York City, how his company survived the ban. It did so by pairing with Sacramento County's Sterling Caviar, one of the pioneers of farmed sturgeon roe nine years ago. Given that female sturgeon do not bear eggs for the first seven to nine years of their lives, it has taken several decades for businesses like Sterling Caviar to get going, and worldwide production still can't match what was fished from the Caspian during the peak years. But the quality of farmed caviar improved just in time for the product to retain its status and price.

The shark's fin industry should take two lessons from the disappearance of wild caviar. One: The only thing that had any effect on overfishing was to block demand, and even those bans were passed too late to prevent the fishery population from collapse. Two: The caviar industry survived the damage it wrought only because it came up with a substitute. Clearly, it's time for the shark's fin industry to get to work.

With all due respect for culture, and the marvelous texture of shark's fin, it is an ingredient we're going to have to say goodbye to, at least temporarily. We can do it now, by outlawing its sale, or do it in a very short number of years, when we've overfished the oceans and screwed up the ecosystem for good. Ours is the generation that has to pay for growing up in comfort by saying farewell to some foods we love.

Humans are status-defining animals, after all, and our capacity for adjusting our preferences and prejudices to respond to changing markets is well documented. Could the grand gourmets of the 1930s or 1970s have predicted that, in 2011, a dirty clump of carrots picked from just the right farm might carry more cachet than a beluga-topped blini? A status symbol is far easier to replace than an entire ecosystem. "The Chinese community is flexible," Wong asserts, confident in the rightness of the ban he's backing. "We'll adapt."

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31 comments
Jjperson1420
Jjperson1420

What's the one thing that'll kill ya if the water itself doesn't? Sharks. They're predators, like spiders and snakes. Hope they go after the big ones because those'll give swimmers the most trouble.

Billy
Billy

The fact is the bill will not solve any issue and just all about politics. Right now Fong get all the attention he want and he's truth politician. Who heard his name and know what he's doing before?

The city to consume most shark fin is not California/US, just wake up! The bill simple taking other people's right(eating what they want), did people go to butcher's shop and see how the animal get killed there?

T
T

I think this is not just about a bowl of soup! Asian have to wake up! Before the bill is passed ourcommunity has been divided. That is the hidden agenda! Some people afraid Asian is going to take over US and use this to catagorize us as being "Cruel". We are being criminalized and demonlized even thought we are all against cruelty! We have to wake up! Major Ed Lee is doing the right thing to oppose the ban. He stands up for what is right even under a lot of pressure for being polictically incorrect!

Guy
Guy

This is not a cultural issue! To kill an animal in such a stupidly cruel way is immoral! Doing so solely to get to one small part of the animal only aggravates this! If the animal had been one of better reputation, more intelligent or more cuddly a world wide ban would have been in place a long time ago. This last part says something about the hypocrisy of (western) politicians.

Yvonne Chu
Yvonne Chu

Yesterday, lawmaker in China, Ding Liguo, deputy to the National People's Congress, proposed that CHINA'S TOP LEGISLATURE SHOULD BAN THE TRADE OF SHARK FIN. Ding said, "Only legislation can stop shark fin trading and reduce the killings of sharks" [Shanghai Daily, 2011-3-9]. http://www.shanghaidaily.com/a...

Taphonomy
Taphonomy

I am Chinese (in fact, from Hong Kong, where shark fin soup used to be a big fuss) and I completely agree with this move, Sharks are endangered animal, and it is time for us to take some responsibility in preserving this animal for the future generation (we can continue consume them, but at this rate* eventually they will all died out and we would really never be able to eat them again)

There are some other alternatives that we can used to replace Shark Fins in those delicacies made with shark fins anyways and many times they taste better than the original one.

guest
guest

This is completely racism. How will one feel if China bans hamburger or StarBucks in China? I can't believe we are living in a free country when you can choose what you want to eat. How are we different from those Islamic extremeist or zealots who bans any entertainment or fun?

Louie
Louie

I choose to eat your children.

TSalvatore
TSalvatore

This is not racist (not 'racism' FYI). And I wouldn't give a rat's hind end if China banned everything American. If you agree with shark-finning, you are as useless as those idiots who are slaughtering our sharks. What are you going to do when they've killed every last shark? What are you going to start slaughtering next and call it part of your 'culture'? You make me sick.

Erin Carrott
Erin Carrott

Cows are not endangered, and neither is Starbucks, if you ban them in China, I don't think anyone would care (although there may be some happy cows). The problem is that demand for shark fin has exceeded supply, and most people will not accept the available substitutes for the cartilage. Sharks have very slow gestation and maturation periods, a Great White Shark may not reach sexual maturity for 15 years, and even then, they only have one birth at a time. The hunting of the sharks has not allowed the shark species to recover, at all.Also, shark has more mercury in it than any other fish, it can cause sterility and other central nervous system problems. I have no problem with what people eat, as long as it is not an endangered species which is on the verge of collapse, and will take the ecosystem of the ocean with it. Sharks are apex preditors, and they maintain the health and viability of the ocean. When a food is threatening an ecosystem, it is time to stand back and wonder if it is really worth it, when you can get substitutes. The cartilage adds no flavor to the soup, just texture. Unfortunately freedom has it's limits. You are not free to kill people, you are not free to drive drunk; we maintain a civilized society by implementing laws to ensure, not only our survival, but the survival of the world we live in.

leesf
leesf

Shark fin soup is just the tip of iceberg. When is the world going to condemn Asian Traditional Medicine? What do you think is driving the extinction of tigers, rhinos, pangolins, bears, turtles, etc..? It is the status and unproven belief that animal parts have medicinal properties. Why don't conservation NGO's make this clear the reasons instead of a general "Save the _____ Campaign? In the '70's, there was a campaign against wearing animal fur. "Fur is dead!!" Doesn't get any clearer than that.

Guest
Guest

I absolutely agree with you! Asian culture and their ridiculous beliefs are a problem and they are 90% responsible for most of our animal species being endangered and for all the pain and suffering they cause animals. As a huge animal lover and advocate for animal rights, the entire Asian culture makes it very difficult not to be racist. If you want people to stop being racist towards Asian people then stop doing all these Asian-typical things. Eat an apple!

C.L.
C.L.

Hundreds of pounds of shark fins--dried and completely unidentifiable--arrive in this city every week largely from Asia and Mexico. And Leland Yee confusing the issue by raising the ugly specter of racism, ain't gonna change that fact. But that's not the issue, Mr. Yee. The issue is importation of unidentifiable fins. The stuff of which most sharkfin soup is, evidently, made. http://monkeyfacenews.typepad....

Yvonne Chu
Yvonne Chu

I grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore and shark fin soup is used to honor our guests largely because of its expense. This is analogous to giving diamond engagement rings in the U.S. -- an expensive diamond ring may be used to indicate one's high regard for one's potential partner. Among the dishes I've eaten, shark fin soup is very good if prepared well, but it's not among the most delicious. Cantonese cuisine has more exciting dishes (shark fin soup is a Cantonese tradition). Its function is mostly social, i.e. its expense is a sign of regard. Sometimes Chinese replace it with crab seafood soup, or bird's nest soup (selected because of its expense).Here's a delectable bowl of crab seafood soup: http://vishotel.files.wordpres...Here's a list of other alternatives to shark fin soup, including one that tastes very similar: http://mnsmarine.tripod.com/we...For the most exquisite Cantonese cuisine, however, you'll have to go to Hong Kong.

seriously
seriously

fine then kill the whole damn shark

Guest
Guest

There is no reason to eat ANY dish, of any culture, that leads to the endangerment of a species.

As a Chinese immigrant I grew up eating shark fin soup, but have stopped since I found out 1/3 of the species of sharks are endangered due to this practice.

Since we use shark fin soup to honor our guests largely because of its expense, our guests would feel just as honored if we serve an even more expensive seafood soup. Here is a description of alternatives to shark fin soup, including one that tastes very similar: http://mnsmarine.tripod.com/we...

How about a delectable bowl of crab seafood soup: http://vishotel.files.wordpres...

It is important that the ban on shark finning be enforceable. Similar to the ivory trade, our experience with ivory demonstrates that the only way we can enforce it is to cut the demand (discussion on KQED about enforceability issue http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R2... ).

I personally feel that because Chinese have caused the depletion of sharks in the ocean, we have an added responsibility to support the ban on shark fin trade.

EL
EL

I personally can foresee a ban on shark fin. Click this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F...

and see how the Chinese government (amazing isn't it) already limits the harvest of this delicacy.

S B
S B

This is a great example of taking a global issue and trying to make it local (more examples: SF's endless resolutions about places like Burma). I am not a lover of this soup and don't care if it does or does not exist. I just find it sad that our local and state politicians devote this much energy to the needs of marine life, when California's human citizens have more pressing issues to address. Why does Huffman tout this issue? Just like his attempt at banning aluminum bats - because it's a feel-good vote with very little political consequence.

n8vGrL
n8vGrL

There wouldn't be ANY humans if there were no animals. Wow. How ignorant.

Criticofone
Criticofone

All that animal suffering and all that time to cook shark fin soup. Someone please save the wildlife by introducing champagne (and Viagra) into China.

MrEricSir
MrEricSir

Cultural respect is no excuse for animal cruelty.

Michelle
Michelle

Leland Yee continues to help California Chinatowns import live, diseased, and invasive turtles and frogs by the ton. He and the live-market merchants recently accused the CA Fish and Game Commission, environmentalists and animal advocates of racism when we concluded that issuing permits for the importation of live, invasive turtles and frogs is inappropriate.

If a small group of people wants to import live invasive apple moths, should California let them? Bizarrely, Yee and his cohorts claim that eating turtles is a Chinese culture, when it really is not. (I am an immigrant Chinese, and I know.) The overwhelming majority of Chinese from China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia do not eat turtles and are appalled when they hear of it.

The wild turtles are cut apart in the live markets while fully conscious. I have seen them still struggling after their shells were cut away, organs exposed, their eyes showing great agony (mouth agape).

The imported frogs tested positive for chytrid fungus, which caused the extinction of well over a hundred frog species. The wild turtles sold tested positive for parasites and other diseases like E. coli, salmonella, pasturella (all three potentially fatal in humans), giardia, blood parasites, even one case of malaria. Not only is this illegal, it puts people's health at risk and is actually "reverse" discrimination. It is not feasible to control live creatures once they come over the border. Exceptions should only be allowed for special institutions.

If someone tells me my food is diseased, I would dump it immediately and sound the alarm. Why not Leland?

S B
S B

This is an attack on Leland Yee. What does it have to do with shark's fin soup?

Michelle
Michelle

This is not so much an attack than a fair comment. The comment has a lot to do with the politics behind people wanting certain agendas. Seriously, as an Asian, should I care more about people being racist to me, or should I care about the larger world beyond myself and my race? It is time to grow up. We live in a world beyond race now. It's time to stop whining and be respectable. You might say I am whining in my own way. No, I am not, just revealing the politics of why people are urged to do what they do. Fong and Yee are both Asians. One is for and one is against. My posting says a lot about where Yee stands and why some people oppose the ban... We care about race, but race does not say everything about us. Actions speak louder than race.

n8vGrL
n8vGrL

"It's easy for people to pooh-pooh another cuisine's luxury foods. But status is important. It isn't just about showing off your wealth; it's about showing respect to the people you're buying dinner for, or inviting to your wedding, or celebrating a red egg and ginger party with. It is about finding concrete ways to honor your guests' presence as much as adding luster to your own."

HERE'S AN IDEA: Why don't you donate the cost of a bowl of shark fin soup (for each person) to a conservation organization, slap the receipt in a card that says "One day your children will thank me and you for this.", and hand it over. That is the most asinine argument I've heard yet.

What about MY culture?! In MY culture---Native American---we believe every part of the natural world is invaluable, plays a pivotal role in balance and in cultural beliefs, and has every right to exist on this planet. This includes SHARKS! And every other creature... like... I don't know... rhinos, tigers, elephants, pangolins, sea cucumbers, monkeys, etc. Why is the Chinese culture more important than mine? Why doesn't my cultural beliefs and values matter? I want the sharks to stay because that is what my people have survive on this planet for thousands of years believing. TELL ME WHY THE CHINESE CULTURE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MINE!

Riokid56
Riokid56

You can go to jail for many largely victimless crimes (such as choosing to alter your state of reality, not that of others), but for catching sharks and cutting off their fins while they are still alive, there is no penalty.

Guest
Guest

There is no reason to eat ANY dish, of any culture, that leads to the endangerment of a species.

As a Chinese immigrant I grew up eating shark fin soup, but have stopped since I found out 1/3 of the species of sharks are endangered due to this practice. If Chinese all over the world continue to consume shark fin soup, sharks, which have been around for hundreds of millions of years, will be decimated in our lifetime, with adverse effects on our environment.

Since we use shark fin soup to honor our guests largely because of its expense, our guests would feel just as honored if we serve a even more expensive seafood soup. Here is a description of alternatives to shark fin soup, including one that tastes very similar: http://mnsmarine.tripod.com/we...

It is important that the ban on shark finning be enforceable. This has parallels to the ivory trade and our experience with ivory demonstrates that the only way we can enforce it is to cut the demand (discussion on KQED about enforceability issue http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R2... ).

I personally feel that because Chinese have caused the depletion of sharks in the ocean, we have an added responsibility to support the ban on shark fin trade.

Cat
Cat

Good article... I am a Chinese from Singapore & I support the Ban of shark fin. Chinese doesn't need to deplete the ocean's resources to show-off their strength. The world is changing, times have changed, we have to do the right thing - ban shark fin!imho, the shark finning industry just want to plunder the ocean (especially in the less developed countries) & doesn't want to put their money into research...This is an article by a famous food consultant in Singapore about shark fin (& its healthier alternative). http://www.tnp.sg/columnists/s...

Eric Mills
Eric Mills

Kudos to Assemblymembers Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) for introducing AB 376, and for putting environmental protection and animal cruelty ahead of an archaic cultural practice. I daresay the overwhelming majority of Californians, including those of Asian descent, would support this commonsense legislation.

AB 376 will be assigned to the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee for a hearing in the near future, and letters of support are needed NOW.

ALL LEGISLATORS MAY BE WRITTEN C/O THE STATE CAPITOL, SACRAMENTO, CA 95814.

Perhaps when the shark issue is resolved, we can take a hard look at the Chinatown live food markets, which share some of the same problems: horrendous animal cruelty, with the added concerns of risks to the environment and the public health.

California imports TWO MILLION American bullfrogs for human consumption every year (most commercially-raised in Taiwan), plus an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 freshwater turtles, all taken from the wild in states east of the Rockies, depleting local populations. ALL are diseased and/or parasitized, endangering the public health. Worse, a 2009 study published in BIOLOGICAL CONSERVATION noted that, of the market frogs necropsied, 62% tested positive for the chytrid fungus, a prime suspect in the extinctions of nearly 200 amphibian species around the world in recent years. That alone should be enough to stop this ugly and unsustainable commerce. Many of the market animals are routinely butchered while fully conscious. Not acceptable.

SAVE THE SHARKS! SAVE THE FROGS! SAVE THE TURTLES! And maybe, just maybe, we might save ourselves.

 
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