The Fight for Shark Fin Soup Turns to Race

Detractors over a California bill to ban shark fins call racism

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Players: California Assemblyman Paul Fong and shark supporters; state Senator Ted Lieu and those who oppose Fong's bill to ban shark fins

The Opening Serve: Assemblyman Paul Fong is trying to pass a bill that would prohibit the sale, purchase or possession of shark fins in California (except for licensed fishermen) in order to save endangered shark populations. "If they do go extinct, the top predator would be removed from the food chain and that would throw the ocean's ecosystem into a huge imbalance," Fong said in the San Jose Mercury News. "And that will affect us all." Fong's Bill passed the State Assembly in May with relative ease, 65-8, but its effect on shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy that fetches upwards of $100 a bowl, has spurred the bill's detractors to deem it discriminatory. "The Chinese culture...used to promote foot binding on women," said Fong, who is Chinese and grew up on the soup, in a sharp rebuttal. Asian chefs like Charles Phan and celebrity chef Martin Yan have thrown their support behind the bill. "It's never easy when you try to tell people what not to eat, but, in my view, the ocean needs protection," said Phan to the San Francisco Chronicle. "You might call it part of Chinese culture, but if you keep it up, shark will disappear. We need to do what's right for Mother Earth."

The Return Volley: State Senator Ted Lieu thinks the bill is inconsistent and thereby racist. "Under this bill you could have a store in Beverly Hills sell a $440 shark-skin wallet; you could have a store in Malibu serve shark steak," Lieu said in an ABC report. "But you would ban the person from going to Chinatown and having shark-fin soup." State Senator Leeland Yee added in The Chronicle, "Right now, Costco sells shark steak...What are you going to do with the fins from that shark? This is another example in a long line of examples of insensitivity to the culture and traditions of the Asian American community."  "I understand racism, and this isn't a racist act," Fong responded in the Mercury News. "There are plenty of other ways to display your wealth."

President Obama signed a bill banning the "finning" of sharks earlier this year, but Fong's bill would go further and target the trade and import of fins. California, ABC reports, is the largest consumer of shark fins outside of Asia. "This business is highly monitored and managed by the federal government," said Tony Mak, who runs a shark fin distribution company, to the Mercury News. "If they decide the shark population is in danger, the federal government would have shut down commercial fishing of sharks already. They don't have evidence to show sharks are endangered. That's why they don't stop the production side and come to the consumer side to take away consumers' rights."

What They Say They're Fighting About: If Fong's bill is racist. Fong believes that cruel acts and the demand that feeds them aren't protected by culture or the law. Lieu and his supporters think they are being unfairly targeted since other forms of shark sales--wallets and steaks--aren't regulated.

What They're Really Fighting About: Luxury in America. Lieu brings up the affluent  neighborhoods of Beverly Hills and Malibu and makes an argument for the freedom of the consumer. Fong, on the other hand, points out that "there are plenty of other ways to display your wealth."

Who's Winning Now: Fong, the bill's supporters and sharks. Fong's bill skated by the State Assembly and  has amassed celebrity support from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Bo Derek, Yao Ming, and Scarlett Johansson along the way. And sharks benefit from any legislation that bans the sale of their being. But Lieu and his supporters make strong points. The bill risks looking lopsided and perhaps racist if it bans one kind of shark sale and not others--if the bill's sole intention is truly to save sharks.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.