Soup Without Fins? Some Californians Simmer
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN The New York Times
Published: March 5, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO — As the proprietor of Chung Chou City, a packed-to-the-gills dried seafood emporium in Chinatown here, Anna Li presides over barrels full of coveted ingredients like dried shrimp eggs and scallops and fried fish stomachs.
The Rolls-Royce of the sea is her shark’s fin, the pricey pièce de résistance of traditional Chinese banquets. “No shark’s fin soup, you’re cheap,” said Mrs. Li, summing up the prevailing ethos toward the steamy glutinous broth, for centuries a symbol of virility, wealth and power.
But in a move that has infuriated Mrs. Li and others in this community, a bill recently introduced in the California Legislature would ban the sale and possession of shark fins, including the serving of shark’s fin soup. Down the rickety alleyways and produce-laden byways of San Francisco’s Chinatown, some see the proposed law as a cultural assault — a sort of Chinese Exclusion Act in a bowl.
Similar to a measure passed in Hawaii, the bill seeks to curtail shark finning, a brutal, bloody practice of the global trade in which the fins are typically hacked off a live shark, leaving it to die slowly as it sinks to the bottom of the sea.
In Hawaii, restaurants have until June 30 to cook or dispose of their fin inventories, and penalties for possession will be severe, with fines of $5,000 to $15,000 for a first offense. Similar bills were introduced in Oregon and Washington State.
Scientists cite a growing international demand for shark’s fin soup, especially popular with China’s expanding middle class. As the once-ceremonial dish becomes more accessible, up to 73 million sharks are being killed a year.
The bill is attracting a motley group of supporters, including the state’s sport and commercial fishermen’s associations, aquariums, chefs, scientists and numerous environmental groups.
But in a city where food and the environment are perhaps equal obsessions, the politics of soup has also highlighted a generational divide between eco-conscious children and their tradition-bound elders.
Charles Phan, the 48-year-old executive chef of the widely acclaimed restaurant the Slanted Door, was weaned on the soup, cooked by his Chinese mother in Vietnam. But he has come out in favor of the fin ban, much to the chagrin of many Asian colleagues.
“The real message is not to eat the soup,” he said. “Times have changed. When the ocean is decimated, you just can’t afford to eat it.”
Although federal law prohibits bringing sharks onto shore without fins attached, a loophole permits importing fins, which come primarily from China and Mexico, said John E. McCosker, chairman of the aquatic biology department at the California Academy of Sciences. Sharks like the great white are slow to reproduce and can take up to 15 years to mature, making farming virtually impossible.
Scientists say that as many as 90 percent of sharks in the world’s open oceans have disappeared. “They’re among the ocean’s most vulnerable animals,” Dr. McCosker said. “The whole food web becomes bollixed when you take out the top-level predator.”
Much to the consternation of some in the Chinese community — from politicians to chefs with rhapsodic Zagat ratings — the proposed legislation in California was co-sponsored in the Assembly by Paul Fong, a Silicon Valley Democrat who grew up with shark’s fin soup and spoke Cantonese at home.
“It’s a horrific scene,” he said of finning. “Being environmentally conscious, I took the scientists’ side.”
On the other side, State Senator Leland Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, said the ban went too far, outlawing fins even from legally caught sharks.
“The practice of shark’s fin soup has been in our culture for thousands of years,” he said. “There ought to be a way to find a balance between the environment and preserving culture and heritage.”
California has been a leader in shark conservation, enacting legislation protecting white sharks in 1997.
Chris Lowe, a shark specialist and a professor of marine biology at California State University, Long Beach, said fins had historically not been the only shark organ in demand: in the 1930s, Professor Lowe said, the popularity of shark liver oil depleted California’s once-plentiful soupfin shark population, whose livers are rich in vitamin A.
Shark fins come in varying grades, priced accordingly, with the thick caudal, or tail, fin, the most expensive. It can sell for nearly $800 for a 1.6-pound bag or $320 for a taffeta-ribboned gift pack.
At the R&G Lounge, a leading Chinatown restaurant, Kinson K. Wong, 58, defends the slippery delicacy.
“People come to America to enjoy the freedom, including what’s on the plate,” he said. Mr. Wong, who credits his success here to shark’s fin soup and to President Richard M. Nixon’s overtures to China, serves a double-boiled shark’s fin soup for $15 a cup; a $75 double order for 10, on Banquet Menu C, is accompanied by Longevity Noodle with Abalone Sauce and Baked Maine Lobster in Supreme Broth.
Eliminating shark’s fin soup, he said, would cost waiters tips and cost the restaurant profits.
Mrs. Li of Chung Chou City is irate about the bill, albeit politely, predicting a domino effect in Chinatown (or the mah-jongg tile equivalent).
“If the government stops shark fin,” she said grimly amid her dried marine bounty, “next will be the fish stomach.”
The tempest in a soup pot represents a seismic shift. Like many young people born in the Bay Area, Frank Wong, Kinson Wong’s 31-year-old son, has mixed feelings about shark’s fin, a fixture of his youth. ”It’s not as big a deal for me as it is for my parents,” he said.
Even the elder Mr. Wong admitted he might not recommend a lavish banquet with shark’s fin soup when his son gets married. “I suggest to him, don’t have a banquet — keep the money,” Mr. Wong said.
Jennifer Cheung, 27, an industrial designer, refused the soup at her family New Year’s dinner, trying — in vain, she said — to explain the importance of the ecosystem to her elderly uncle, a Chinese herbalist.
“It was, ‘Oh, Jennifer’s being a hippie,’ ” she said.
“I come from a culture where food is very important,” she continued. “But I think this is a very hefty price to pay just for a bowl of soup.”