By Regan Hofmann
A recently proposed bill would make New York the latest state to ban the pos- session and sale of shark fins, joining Hawaii, California and a handful of oth- ers. The Chinese delicacy shark’s fin soup is the only common application for the appendages, which has led to those who object to the bill calling its proposition cul- turally biased.
The bill is sponsored by Assembly members Grace Meng of Flushing, Alan Maisel of Brooklyn and Linda Rosenthal of the Upper West Side, all of whom point to the cruelty of the way in which fins are acquired—by cutting them off, then toss- ing the dying, fin-less animal back into the water to save room on the boat, known as finning—and the ecological danger of depleting the world’s shark populations.
“The quest for shark fin so that restau- rants can sell shark fin soup is something that is doing dramatic damage to our oce- anic system,” Rosenthal told the West Side Spirit’s Megan Bungeroth last week.
Federal legislation exists that prohibits the practice of finning, but of course it only applies to those fisheries under U.S. juris-
diction. The only way to have a real impact and protect the global ecosystem, legisla- tors say, is to forbid the trade altogether, regardless of provenance.
But the real question is not whether the fins should be banned—plenty of endan- gered or malevolently acquired animal products have been banned before, and there’s no scrimshaw lobby pushing for the return of the ivory trade—but why it’s up for debate in the first place.
Unlike other uses for endangered animals, culturally significant foods are uniquely protected in the political sphere. It’s incredibly difficult to decry the practic- es specific to a single cultural group with- out deriding the group itself—but the risk needs to be taken.
Across the board, opposition to the ban consists of restaurant owners and small business associations whose members include importers and specialty food shops and politicians who fear the perception of bias—during Toronto’s debate on the ban, which ultimately passed, City Council Member Doug Ford said, “I’m a big sup- porter of the Chinese community. If that’s part of their culture, we shouldn’t interfere
in that.” Like many traditional Chinese dishes
with less-than-quotidian ingredients, shark’s fin soup remains popular for two reasons: perceived healthfulness and pres- tige. Chinese culture places a great empha- sis on the medicinal qualities of foods, and shark fins are believed to aid kidney func- tion, nourish the blood and boost sexual potency, among other benefits. While a perfectly reasonable purpose, there’s noth- ing a shark’s fin can do that other noted healing foods like oysters or ginseng can’t.
The real value of the soup is its cultural capital. Fins are rare—each shark only has one, after all—and they’re expensive. Their gelatinous, cartilaginous texture is unique, making it hard to pass off cheaper substi- tutes as the real deal. Serving the soup to others shows that you’ve got plenty of cash to throw around; more importantly, it shows your guests that you think enough of them to spend your hard-earned cash on them.
Grand Chinese banquets are amazing displays of generosity and creativity, with courses numbering in the double digits and an emphasis on intricate, time-consuming dishes not feasible for everyday fare.
There are enough other big-ticket ingredients that are de rigeur for any traditional cel- ebration—abalone, lobster, dried scallops, to name a mere few—to more than make up for the lack of one soup tureen.
Preserving traditional foodways is an important endeavor, one to be supported and lauded. But that work is meant to pre- serve the spirit and culture of the food, not exact recipes. Chinese banquet cuisine is not in danger of extinction—but sharks, as they are currently used, are. You do the math.
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