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No More Shark Fin Soup for You! (In California)

Shark fin soup
Shark fin soup
Flickr/

Many in the Asian community fought the ban, citing a centuries-old tradition of serving shark fin soup at weddings, banquets and other ceremonial events. The soup can fetch $100 or more a bowl. A San Francisco Chinatown group estimates the new law will cause revenue losses of about $40 million.

Under the new law, Chinese restaurants that continue to sell shark fin soup, or markets that sell dried shark fins, will face fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

What's the big appeal, anyway? "Shark fin soup tastes like nothing and I've never liked it," says blogger Brian Lam. "Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey taste tested it on camera and said the same. So did a reporter from Time, who found it, 'underwhelming.' The taste from the soup is actually derived from the broth. The fins contribute to the texture, which is similar to a gelatinous version of grapefruit pulp, unpopped. So why does the soup go for so much? David Lieberman from the OC Weekly says its because 'Asians prize texture as much as taste in their food.'" Lam adds by way of explanation: "Chinese people like expensive stuff."

The texture has been described as falling somewhere between chewy and crunchy. And, to many Western eyes, it looks like a dish only Hannibal Lecter could love--a yellowish gelatinous mass in broth, like a hunk of tripe in bile.

"We've been working with restaurant owners and the Chinese communities throughout the state to educate them about the ban since the beginning of the year," Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the San Jose Mercury News. "The warning period is over and citations will most likely be issued."

The law, which was sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was designed to reduce demand for shark fins. Millions of sharks -- many of them from endangered species -- are killed each year, often by fishing crews who cut off their fins and then throw the still-living sharks back into the ocean, where they painfully bleed to death. "While a pound of shark fin can go for up to $300, most shark meat isn't particularly valuable, and it takes up freezer space and weight on fishing boats," Time magazine explains. All told, up to 70 million sharks are culled annually for the trade, despite the fact that 30% of shark species are threatened with extinction, according to the magazine.

"It's really great news for the oceans. It's long overdue," Ken Peterson, a spokesman for the aquarium, told the Merc about the ban. "It's inspired a lot of other states to do the same."

Not everyone is happy about the move, however. The Burlingame-based Asian Americans for Political Advancement and the San Francisco Chinatown Neighborhood Assn. sued last year in federal court in San Francisco to block the law. They claimed it discriminates against Chinese-Americans because it prohibits "cultural" uses of shark fins.

They lost their case in January, but plan to appeal.

"Most of the stores and restaurants have gotten rid of their inventory," Taylor Chow, president of Asian Americans for Political Advancement, told the newspaper. "It makes them feel sad. It makes them recall the Chinese Exclusion Act. When there is a problem, society tries to blame minorities."

Yeah, just like society blames Africans for cutting off gorillas' hands to sell as souvenirs.

Supporters of the law note it was backed by some people of Chinese descent, including chef Martin Yan, basketball player Yao Ming, and most notably, Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), who wrote the damn thing.

Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Delaware, Illinois, New York and Maryland -- along with Guam, American Samoa, and Northern Mariana Islands -- have all passed similar bans on shark fin sale and possession. A similar bill was defeated in May by the Texas Legislature (no surprise there).

Oddly enough, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working on a proposal that that would forbid state bans. Cutting fins off sharks in U.S. waters has been illegal since 2000, thanks to President Bill Clinton. But in most states, including California until now, it has been legal to sell shark fins imported from other countries.

California is the world's second-largest market for shark fins, according to Jennifer Fearing, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

"It's very similar to ivory elephant tusks," she told the Merc. "To stop poaching and eliminate the value of ivory, you have to devalue it, and this law puts a value of zero on shark fins."


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