Shark fin soup may soon not be on a menu near you now that a bill banning the fishing, sale, possession and distribution of the ocean predator's cartilage is heading to the governor's office.
With Tuesday's Senate vote of 25-9 in favor of the California Shark Protection Act(AB 376), the controversial bill raised questions about the impact of cultural values on the enviroment and pit two Chinese-Americans against one another—Mountain View (D-Cupertino) and Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco).
Fong won this one. The bill now heads to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature.
“It is time to stop serving a soup that is driving sharks to extinction," said Fong, who with Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) co-authored the bill. "The cultural issue is very minor compared to the major environmental devastation of eliminating sharks for our world’s oceans."
Fins sell for upwards of $600 a pound, while shark meat garners $1 per pound. What drives some of the legislation is the widespread modern practice of "finning," where fishermen hack off the fins of live sharks, and throw the fish back into the ocean to die.
Outside of Asia, California consumes the largest amount of shark fin.
Served at special events such as weddings in the Chinese community, it is a delicacy that is a specialty of Cantonese cuisine.
Locally, at Cantonese restaurants in Mountain View, shark fin soup could be purchased at on San Antonio Road. There, the soup as an appetizer costs $25.50 per person and as high as $308 for a table of 10. At on Castro Street, an individual serving costs $38, a whole rack of shark fin costs $180, and for a table of 10, the cheapest price for a wedding banquet is $438.
"It's our foie gras," in a manner of speaking, said Los Altan Larry Chu, who is Chinese, but not Cantonese. He worked for several years in Hong Kong, where Cantonese food is the dominant regional cuisine.
Foie gras, for those who don't remember, was banned in 2004 in California, as a result of the revulsion against the forced tube-feeding of geese and duck to fatten the livers that make the French delicacy. Because of the objections of top chefs such as Thomas Keller, the foie gras ban does not go into effect until July 2012 while sustainable alternatives are sought.
Chu runs the front of the house at his father's well-known Chef Chu's restaurant in Los Altos. Chef Chu's, which is not a Cantonese style restaurant and thus doesn't even have shark's fin on the menu, only serves it on request, usually for a banquet planned in advance.
"If it's someone's grandmother's birthday and she loves shark's fin soup, we'll serve it," Chu said. It is a cultural thing, he added. But it is also not a big part of the restaurant's business, he said, recalling that they've had only one request for it so far this year.
"We're neutral, we haven't taken a stand on it," said Chu said. The restaurant on San Antonio Road and El Camino Real is well-patronized, but also doesn't depend on a predominantly Chinese clientele.
However, opponents of the bill still argue that the legislation targets one particular cultural group and does not address some of the other reasons the population of sharks in the oceans has declined in recent years. Yee, who voted in favor of the foie gras ban in 2004, also emphasized that sharks can still be fished for other purposes.
"If the state said, 'No shark's fin,' we'll go with whatever the law says," Chu said. "We stopped using Styrofoam at the restaurant ahead of any law because of the environmental concerns—and our customers asked for it."
Because of Chinese Americans like Chu, Fong believes that his community can make the compromise, and that culture can change.
"Chinese Americans are environmentally conscious, we believe in harmony with nature," he said. "It is in our culture to support the protection of our environment.”