Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is Banning Shark's Fin Racist?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 6:04 PM

click to enlarge Leland Yee.
  • Leland Yee.

Today, the San Francisco Chronicle surveyed the battle emerging over a recently introduced state assembly bill proposing to ban the sale and import of shark's fin throughout California. The pro and con camps are defining it as a fight over cultural heritage versus environmental conservation.

According to the New York Times, 73 million sharks are killed annually just for their fins, and numerous species of shark are already nearing population collapse. This December, a federal ban on shark finning in U.S. waters was passed, but since it doesn't regulate the sale of imported shark fins, it's not keeping the expensive ingredient out of markets and restaurants here. AB 376 doesn't attempt to identify and eliminate loopholes ― it completely shuts down trade.

click to enlarge Leland Yee.
  • Leland Yee.

The Chron says that State Senator (and mayoral candidate) Leland Yee is fighting the ban with charges of racism, calling the bill an "attack on Asian culture." (According to the Examiner, another local assemblywoman, Fiona Ma, is keeping neutral at present.) Yee says that the ban doesn't just discriminate against Chinese culinary traditions, it's too broad, banning the sale of the fins from properly fished sharks caught for their meat.

Frankly, SFoodie can't blame Yee for seeing an anti-Chinese subtext in the ban. Read just one page of the 400 comments on the Chron article and you'll catch echoes of Americans' fear of the rising Chinese middle class, who are identified as the primary market for shark's fin, and the persistent suspicion and disgust many Americans feel toward other cultures'  foods. SFoodie was with Yee in his fight to preserve the sale of live frogs and fish in Asian markets. The xenophobic taint of the animal-rights rhetoric in that proposed ban was evident.

But this isn't the same thing. Globally, we've reached the point at which the collapse of an ecosystem has to take precedence over one culture's culinary heritage. No matter who the primary "market" is, overconsumption is taking sharks ― and bluefin tuna, and Atlantic cod, and hundreds of other species ― away from

all of us, and we all have a right to demand action. The situation is becoming drastic, and drastic, across-the-board bans are warranted. SFoodie has no problem with any producer seeking an exception to a worldwide shark's fin ban ― as soon as they prove, irrefutably, that they can raise and harvest the fish sustainably.

What Yee and the anti-AB 376 camp demonstrate is that the bill's advocates need to keep their language sharp and culturally sensitive. They also need to keep spokesmen like Assemblyman Paul Fong (the bill's co-sponsor), Slanted Door owner Charles Phan, and Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook) in front of the campaign. A Chinese-born chef like Yan may be able to sway voters that scientists and activists will never reach.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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