Eating Shark Fin Soup: When Tradition Collides with the Environment

What do you do when a time-honored cultural practice is frowned upon by environmentalists? In California, controversy is stirring up over the newly proposed ban of shark fins. Such a ban would include any possession of shark fins, not just sale, and fines would range from $5,000 to $15,000. While most Americans may not be familiar with shark fin dishes, shark fin soup is a traditional part of lavish Chinese banquets. Many people in Chinese communities of California see this as a cultural affront and even an infringement upon their rights.

What's the big deal about shark fins? Frequently, the practice of harvesting shark fins is accompanied by depositing the discarded shark, still alive, into the ocean to endure a prolonged death as it sinks to the bottom. This practice is illegal, considered inhumane by many, and a threat to waning shark populations around the globe with 73 million sharks killed annually.

Even within Chinese communities, however, there is no consensus. The younger and more environmentally aware generations of Chinese communities are somewhat more sympathetic towards the bill, the trade-off is difficult to understand for their parents and grandparents.

When food collides with tradition, it can be difficult to reconcile what has been a long-standing practice, with contemporary views.  In Norway, the practice of whaling is a centuries-old tradition. (Source) Now, only Minke whales are allowed to be caught, but despite the legality, many environmentalists frown on the practice.

Similarly, in Japan, whaling is an ancient practice that now only exists for scientific purposes or that are caught in 'bycatch,' meaning those which have become tangled in nets not expressly used for catching whales. (Source) The meat from those whales is sold for consumption.  Dating to the 12th century, many Japanese view eating whale meat as a cultural delicacy.

With the shark fin issue, California Chinese community leaders are just as split as their followers. The bill was co-sponsored by Paul Fong, a Californian of Chinese descent and Silicon Valley mogul; Charles Phan, a prominent Chinese restaurant owner in San Francisco, has also come out as supporting the ban. Chinese-American State Senator Leland Yee, however, is trying to argue for a middle ground, pointing out that even legally harvested shark fins are proposed to become illegal.

A similar bill has already been passed in Hawaii, with ones proposed in Oregon and Washington State as well. To read more on the issue, go to the full New York Times article.