Fresh shark fins drying on sidewalk

More than Just a Bowl of Soup: When a cultural practice becomes a problem for us all

A brief look at the detrimental practice of shark finning and recent developments in the quest for its regulation.

Shark finning is a barbaric practice, pervasive in present-day Chinese culture.  Shark finning fishermen throw out miles of baited fishing lines for sharks to bite and get stuck in.  Once hauled onto the fishing vessel, the sharks’ fins are violently cut off; then the sharks are immediately released back into the ocean.  Sharks breathe oxygen by moving through the water and due to their fins being cut off they are unable to swim and drown as a result.  Only recently has the global community begun to take action to stop shark finning due to its detrimental effect on shark species.

If China proves able to shed ties from an ancient practice, what kind of message would it send to the rest of the world about eliminating potentially environmentally harmful practices that are deeply ingrained in each country’s own culture?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that of 307 shark species, 50 are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.[1]  Sonja Fordman, Deputy Chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, notes, “[t]he vulnerability and lengthy migrations of most open ocean sharks means they need coordinated, international conservation plans.  Our report documents serious overfishing of these species, in national and international waters, and demonstrates a clear need for immediate action on a global scale.”[2]

In the United States, President Obama expressed his intention to join international treaties on shark finning and signed the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 into law in January 2011.  The agreement called for the United States to “enter into international agreements that require measures for the conservation of sharks, including measures to prohibit removal of any of the fins of a shark.”[3]

Locally, in 2012 Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the California Fish & Game Code § 2021, which takes effect on January 1, 2013.[4]  The bill makes it unlawful for any person to “possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin.”[5]  A driving force behind the bill is the recognition that, “California is a market for shark fins and this demand helps drive the practice of shark finning.  By impacting the demand for shark fins, California can help ensure that sharks do not become extinct as a result of shark finning.”[6]

Shark fins are most commonly used to create shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy.  Shark fin soup has been a specialty since it first appeared on the Emperor’s table in the 1400’s during the Ming Dynasty.[7]  However, China surprised the rest of the world by announcing in July 2012 that it plans to launch an initiative to ban shark fin soup at government banquets.[8]  Is this a result of China’s wish to create and portray a more positive and “green” image to the rest of the world?

If China proves able to shed ties from an ancient practice, what kind of message would it send to the rest of the world about eliminating potentially environmentally harmful practices that are deeply ingrained in each country’s own culture?  For example, the United States’ dependency on oil has caused detrimental environmental effects including oil spills.  This practice has the potential to be reduced as other forms of energy are becoming increasingly available, such as solar and wind power.  Can we say a change is feasible in a short timeframe, contrasted to the banning of shark finning?  And if it isn’t, does this matter if such a practice can lead to damaging results that affect us all?  Once any cultural practice begins affecting others in the global community, it is important to reflect whether such a practice is appropriate.

 


[1] International Union for Conservation of Nature, ICUN, Third of Open Ocean Sharks Threatened with Extinction, June 25, 2009, available at http://www.iucn.org/?3362/Third-of-open-ocean-sharks-threatened-with-extinction.

[2] Id.

[3] Shark Conservation Act of 2010 § 102(a)(3) (amending 16 U.S.C. § 1826i to include the quoted language).

[4] Greg Lucas, California shark fin ban signed into law, Reuters, (Oct. 7 2011) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/08/us-sharkfin-california-idUSTRE79700K20111008.

[5] Cal Fish & Game Code §§ 2021(a), (f) (2012).

[6] Cal Fish & Game Code § 2021(b) (2012).

[7] Andrew Schneider, Shark Fin Soup: War of Culture, Politics, Business, Food Safety News (June 13, 2011) http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/06/shark-fin-soup-a-cultural-war-environmental-nightmare-and-multi-million-dollar-business/.

[8] Katie Hunt, China plans banquet ban on shark fin, CNN (July 3, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/03/world/asia/china-shark-fin/index.html.