Shark fin soup is an almost-tasteless delicacy that is more notable for its texture. But all across Asia and the Pacific Rim, Chinese consumers have historically viewed it as a mark of success and wealth.
There have been a lot of successful Chinese consumers over the past 20 years, and that is to be celebrated. But one ancillary result of that has been the overfishing of sharks to satisfy this ancient culinary tradition. In ocean waters across the globe, fishermen have been catching sharks in unprecedented numbers, merely to slice off their fins and drop them back into the sea to slowly die.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law outlawing the serving of shark fin soup in California. This won’t stop the overfishing of sharks around the world, since the vast majority of shark fin soup consumers live in Hong Kong.
But California’s law is part of a growing awareness that the world’s shark species are declining alarmingly, and that this practice will wipe out a key and fascinating element of the ocean’s ecosystem.
Researchers have estimated that some shark species near coral reefs have declined by as much as 90 percent. According to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts Environment Group, some 22.7 million pounds of shark fins or shark fin-based product are imported into Hong Kong alone every year. Because so many dead sharks are smuggled into the black market, it’s impossible to estimate how many are killed each year. But environmental groups estimate the range at 38 million to 100 million.
Clearly, the shark population is in serious peril. And Brown was right to ban its importation into California.
Unfortunately, San Francisco’s Chinatown Neighborhood Association doesn’t see it that way. Last week, the group sued in federal court to overturn the state’s ban on the importation of shark fins. In a remarkably hyperbolic spasm, the suit claimed that the ban violates the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment, arguing that the ban was “targeting and banning a cultural practice unique to the Chinese people.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, critics such as Taylor Chow of the Oriental Food Association likened the ban to racist immigration quotas of the early 20th century, and even laws banning fireworks.
The suggestion that environmental laws designed to protect endangered species are subtly racist is old, and rather tired — particularly since the law in question was introduced by Chinese-American Assemblyman Paul Fong of Cupertino. In fact, this month, even the Chinese government announced that it would ban the serving of shark fin soup, although the ban apparently does not extend to Hong Kong.
In this globalized economy, sharks are being wiped out by an international aquaculture industry that cares nothing about America’s past racism. California’s leaders have done one small part in pushing back against this looming catastrophe, and they have nothing to apologize for. That Chinese-American restaurateurs used this canard in hopes that they can keep harvesting the last remaining sharks is as cynical as it is predictable.
We hope that the federal courts see through this nonsense, and help California’s efforts to save shark populations.