By Anna Ling Kaye. Real sea change demands attitude shifts and incentives, not laws that smack of racism.
On Dec. 8, New Westminster-Coquitlam MP Fin Donnelly introduced a private member’s bill that would ban the import of shark’s fin into Canada. The procurement and distribution of shark’s fin, which results in the killing of an estimated 73 million sharks yearly, is now illegal in Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington.
In Canada, Ontario is leading the way, with London and Pickering passing bans on shark’s fin sale and possession on Nov. 21, joining Toronto, Mississauga and Brantford. All eyes are now on whether Vancouver, with its large Asian population, will join the rush of Canadian cities taking on a bylaw banning shark’s fin.
I’ve tasted shark’s fin soup and I agree with the critics: it’s overrated. Its flavor comes from the chicken stock and ham, since shark’s fin itself is basically tasteless. I’ve watched documentaries such as Rob Stewart’s ‘Sharkwater,’ which show the sadistic practice of finning sharks: harvesting the high-value fins off live creatures and throwing the bodies, still alive, back into the sea. I’ve swum with sharks and the experience was thrilling and humbling.
For these reasons, whenever I’m offered shark’s fin soup, usually in a celebratory banquet setting such as a wedding or elder’s birthday, I always refuse. When pressed, I cheerfully explain. Being half-Chinese and married into a Cantonese family, this situation comes up more often than I’d like. My fondest hope is that shark’s fin soup will soon become obsolete, not because the sharks have become extinct, but because people no longer choose to eat it.
And yet I don’t support city and state-specific bans on the sale and consumption of shark’s fin soup. There are more efficient and cost-effective ways of accomplishing this goal than government bans. First, it’s expensive and difficult to enforce a ban. Making it illegal to serve shark’s fin will just push the product into the black market, raising its value even higher. This has been an issue with a number of banned animal products, such as bear gall bladder and rhinoceros horn. A similar battle is being waged today against marijuana and other forms of narcotics, at great cost to North American taxpayers in both dollars and collateral crime. In fact, shark’s fin itself has already had a boost in value because it is illegal to fin in many countries.
Also worrisome is the fact that local bans are often not effective. A telling example is Chicago’s 2006 attempt to ban foie gras (fattened goose liver), which resulted in an explosion of secret restaurants willing to serve the delicacy. The ban was repealed within two years.
However, if local governments do pass legislation restricting consumption practices, the shark’s fin ban is so specific it becomes suspect. Why focus on this particular fish? Blue-fin tuna has long been endangered and yet is still legal to eat and sell in places with shark’s fin bans. Perhaps this is a law that stems from a desire to stop extreme animal cruelty. But if so, why aren’t we banning the consumption of factory-farmed meat, which affects one billion broiler chickens, 80 million hogs and millions of cattle yearly in the U.S.? If there was legislation banning the sale, distribution and consumption of these products as well, banning shark’s fin would make sense. In isolation, there seems to be some form of scapegoating going on.
Gov in the kitchens of the nation
There is also the question of whether the government should be monitoring people’s fridges, pantries and party tables at all. Here in Vancouver, there’s been a raft of recent lawsuits from people who would like the right to drink raw milk, which is illegal to sell or distribute according to British Columbia health regulations. Should the government pronounce on what people consume? When Toronto city council passed its shark’s fin ban, even its own mayor Rob Ford (who opposed the ban) commented, “No one tells me what to eat; why would I tell anyone else?”
The answer might lie in the troubling fact that this legislation appears to focus on a single minority culture. As Salon.com writer Francis Lam puts it, the ban scores “cheap environmental points” without risking “votes that matter.” When Toronto passed its legislation in October, the Globe and Mail ran photos of activist Caucasian mothers sitting in City Hall with their children dressed up as sharks.
If this condemnation of a minority cultural tradition is handed down by a government largely unrepresentative of that target culture, the legislation smacks of racial exclusion. In May, the Globe and Mail ran an article with a challenge as its headline: “Ban shark’s fin? Let the accusations of racism fly.” On the positive side, the article was written by a journalist of Chinese descent, Wency Leung, who opposes the consumption of shark’s fin soup.
Conservation success stories in Asia
The salvation of the shark lies in a partnership between environmental activists, retailers with conscience and most importantly, people of Chinese descent. Hong Kong, which accounts for up to 50 per cent of global shark’s fin trade, is the unlikely setting for the shark’s fin conservation movement’s biggest success stories. At a recent wedding banquet in Hong Kong’s prestigious Jockey Club, I congratulated the young Chinese couple on serving fish maw soup instead. “We didn’t want it on the menu, but the Jockey Club doesn’t serve shark’s fin anyway. It certainly made it easier to explain to the elders,” the groom told me.
This year, 97 other Hong Kong caterers and hotels signed up for the World Wildlife Fund’s shark-free menu campaign. A 2010 Hong Kong survey by the marine conservation group Bloom Association showed that 78 per cent of the respondents would not mind if shark’s fin was removed from banquet menus. Fifty-eight per cent recollected anti-finning publicity campaigns such as basketball sensation Yao Ming’s 2006 pledge to stop eating shark’s fin soup. Since retiring in September this year, Yao Ming has partnered with the conservation group WildAid to lobby in China against shark’s fin consumption.
Successful conservationist campaigns and targeted market surveys facilitate critical social change, such as the prestigious Peninsula hotel group’s Nov. 21 announcement that it will no longer provide shark’s fin dishes. “As Asia’s oldest hotel company, we hope our decision will inspire other hospitality companies to do the same,” Peninsula group’s chief executive Clement Kwok said in a statement. In the same month, a shark’s fin wholesaler in Hong Kong complained to a Guardian reporter that prices for his product dropped by about 20 per cent because of lack of demand.
Don’t ban, boycott
If Hong Kong, the epicenter of shark’s fin consumption, can bring about widespread social change without government bans, surely the results can be replicated in North America. I’m inspired by Shark Truth, Canada’s leading organization against shark’s fin, founded by a young Chinese woman, Claudia Li. After watching the documentary ‘Sharkwater,’ Li galvanized her team to create a number of innovative campaigns publicizing the inhumanity of consuming shark’s fin.
One of Shark Truth’s initiatives is an increasingly popular boycott of shark’s fin at Chinese wedding banquet menus, where newlyweds who carry out the pledge are eligible to win a free trip to Hawaii. Shark Truth estimates that since the wedding boycotts of shark’s fin started in Vancouver, 8,600 bowls of soup have been diverted, and 950 fewer sharks killed. Recently, Shark Truth also conducted an Iron-Chef style cooking competition, where Vancouver restaurant chefs vied to create the most delicious fin-free soups. This holiday season, Sun Sui Wah, one of Vancouver’s top Chinese restaurants, is to be commended for launching a fin-free Christmas banquet menu. Hopefully it will convince other premier Chinese restaurants such as Kirin Seafood Restaurant and Red Star Seafood Restaurant to follow suit.
To stop shark’s fin consumption, a sea change within the Chinese population is already in motion. We need more funding for organizations such as Shark Truth to continue their publicity campaigns, as well as arts grants funding for documentaries such as ‘Sharkwater’ to raise awareness about the cruelty of finning, praise and patronage of restaurants such as Sun Sui Wah that take the item off their menus, and other methods that support of the conservation movement and cultivate a greater awareness among the public.
Ironically, when ‘Sharkwater’ director Stewart and Shark Truth founder Li collaborate with well-meaning MPs such as Fin Donnelly to call for shark’s fin bans, they unravel some of the traction they have gained with their most important audience, the Chinese population. Anti-shark’s fin legislation and judgemental rhetoric carries notes of racism and cultural vilifying, diluting the goodwill of the Chinese population and putting a wrench in the works of a social movement that is already beginning to succeed. This is a peer-based practice, and therefore it is the peer-group, not the government, that will most effectively disenfranchise the practice.
Originally published 02/01/12, on TheTyee.ca