Master predators that they are, and despite what media “shark week” programming might suggest, sharks are having a tough time. It’s bad enough being bad-mouthed on beaches around the world and being used as poster boys for deep-sea aggression. To add insult to injury, their numbers have been reduced by up to 90 percent in some places, and they are increasingly being hunted for their fins. The fins are lopped off to make soup for Asian dinner parties and restaurant menus. According to The New York Times, more than 73 million sharks are killed each year for the fins, in large part to indulge a booming Chinese middle class.
The impact of shark finning is so devastating that some countries and states are banning the fin soup. Last December, in an effort to protect sharks from a gruesome end (the fins are cut off, the still living bodies dumped into the ocean to drown) Congress banned all shark finning in U.S. waters.
Unfortunately for sharks, the federal law doesn’t regulate the import of shark fins taken in other waters. So Hawaii went first, passing a law banning the importation of shark fins and meting out fines of $5,000 to $15,000 for scofflaws. Similar legislative efforts are underway in Washington, Oregon and California.
Not everyone agrees the legislation is the right thing to do. Chinese American communities up and down the West Coast see the law as “racist.”
In San Francisco, California’s fist Chinese American state senator and mayoral candidate, Leland Yee, has called the proposed state law banning all shark fins as an “attack on Asian culture.”
Yee’s playing to a hometown crowd; San Francisco is nearly one-third Asian and home to the country’s largest Chinatown.
Sharks fins can sell for as much as $500 a pound. Restaurant owners can sell a bowl of shark fin soup for as much as $100.
If passed, the law would prohibit hundreds of restaurants from serving the soup, which has a 2,000-year history and is regarded a delicacy. Yee supports the federal ban on illegal killing of sharks for their fins, but he contends that some fins come from legally fished sharks; so an overall ban on importing them is unjust. Proving a fin comes from a legally hunted shark is tricky, and black markets exist.
“Arguably sharks are the most important fish in the ocean,” said David McGuire, a shark researcher at California Academy of Sciences and director of SeaStewards, an environmental group that sponsors the bill.
“Take away the sharks, and, for example, many coral reef ecosystems become degraded,” says Dan Cartamil, researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Despite the damage done to the marine ecosystem, and predictions that sharks will be gone by 2050, economics are driving the fight: Sharks fins can sell for as much as $500 a pound. Restaurant owners can sell a bowl of shark fin soup for as much as $100.
The Chinese American community is not wholly united in opposing the importation ban. Alex Ong, chef at the Pan-Asian restaurant Betelnut in San Francisco’s Marina district, saw gruesome images of sharks being finned and stopped serving the soup. He suggested to the SF Weekly that the broth is the most important aspect of the soup and other seafood could easily be substituted for the fins.
A poll by the Monterey Bay Aquarium indicated strong support of a fin ban among Californians. More than three-quarters of the 600 registered voters surveyed said they support the bill. Of the 218 Chinese-American respondents, 70 percent said they support it.
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.