For a delicacy that can command such a high price—and which has caused so much devastation in the sea—shark-fin soup is practically tasteless. I’ve only eaten it once, during a reporting trip to the industrial Chinese city of Wenzhou more than nine years ago. I was writing about the sex toy king of China—king of manufacturing sex toys, not using them, at least as far as I know—and the two of us went to a banquet hall for a business lunch. He ordered the shark-fin soup—most likely to show that as a prosperous businessman he could afford it—and I had a bowl. It was thin, watery stuff, with golden filaments floating in the broth. It hardly seemed worth the $40 price tag—let alone the shark that had its fin ripped off by a fisherman somewhere.
Whatever the taste, shark-fin soup directly leads to the death of tens of millions of sharks each year—and as consumers in Asia, where the soup has long been a delicacy, grow ever wealthier, the toll keeps rising. But that direct relationship means that if conservationists can convince people to stop eating shark-fin soup—or legislators decide to make it illegal—they can squeeze one of the biggest threats to shark populations worldwide.
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And that’s exactly what’s beginning to happen. Last week the California state senate passed legislation that bans the possession, trade or sale of shark fins, sending the bill to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. And over the weekend the Toronto City Council voted to support a ban on the sale and consumption of shark fin. That’s a state and a major city—both of which have large Asian populations—where shark-fin hasn’t been hard to get. California joins Hawaii, Oregon and Washington as the fourth American state to pass such a ban.
Michael Sutton, vice-president for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Ocean, celebrated California’s move:
It’s a great day for sharks in California. They may now actually survive for another 450 million years.
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California’s legislation had its controversies—some Asian-Americans saw a law banning shark-fin soup, which is mostly eaten by Asians, as discriminatory. But it helped that California state assemblyman Paul Fong of Mountain View—who grew up in China but turned against shark finning—co-sponsored the ban, and more recent polls found strong support in the Asian-American community for the ban.
Still, while states like California and Hawaii may be at the center of the American shark-fin trade, Nevada—with a large Asian tourist trade in Las Vegas—has so far resisted a ban. And the U.S. provides just a tiny portion of the global demand for the soup—the future of sharks will depend on whether consumers in China and Southeast Asia turn away from fin soup.
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There has been some progress internationally—Chinese celebrities like Yao Ming have led anti shark-fin campaigns, and sales have been reduced about one-third in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. But as John Bruno, a University of North Carolina, told the New York Times, politicians need to attack shark fishing, not just shark’s fin soup:
These bans go part way, but you’re still allowed to fish sharks without a permit. In North Carolina, there are shark derbies for fun, where they are hung by their tails. We think it’s O.K. to do that with this ocean predator, but we wouldn’t dream of doing it to a terrestrial animal like a bear.
If we’re going to save sharks, we need to start treating them as animals worth saving.
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