No soup for you: the shark fin controversy continues

You've never tasted such a controversial bowl of soup.

NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins.

It might be just a bowl of soup, but the controversy surrounding this particular dish pits animal rights and environmental activists against thousands of years of culture and history.

For many in China's rising middle class, shark fin soup is a symbol of success, happiness, and the overpowering joy of actually having made it somewhere in life. 

Yet critics point to the brutality involved in the harvesting of shark fins and claim that finning has caused the decline of shark populations worldwide, sending sharks on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's list of endangered species.

Recently, shark fin soup has become an issue of contention among many Chinese themselves -- people who have stopped considering the soup as a status symbolPeople and organizations like NBA basketball player Yao Ming and Canadian activist group Shark Truth have been urging people to stop consuming the contested soup. 

Shark Truth founder Claudia Li recognizes the importance of both laws against shark finning, as well as education on the topic. Li notes that bringing about effective change is "really about creating a dialogue" between different sides of the debate.

"Nobody told me in my own language that shark fin soup was bad. Our focus has always been around awareness [...] the urgency of it demands both a top-down and bottom-up approach," Li said. 

On the Shark Truth website, Li said she considers herself "no less Chinese" now that she has stopped drinking the soup. "If anything, taking shark fin off the menu can help preserve Chinese culture and communities by helping our oceans to thrive," she argues.

But traditionalists question the criticism, wondering why shark fin soup specifically is being singled out for condemnation. Shark fin soup defenders wonder if the controversy isn't actually being fuelled by racist or political motivations. U.S. Senator Leland Yee, for example, hit back at criticism, saying it was "an attack on Asian Culture"It isn't necessarily outrage about the soup controversy itself, but the fact that bans are being imposed upon something that is very much a matter of their identity. 

Even among opponents to shark fin soup, there is disagreement: those advocating a complete ban are opposed by those who believe a shift in attitude is more important than a legal ban against shark fin soup on the menu.

The latter have a valid point. Looking at the clandestine trade of marijuana and of certain other commodities within British Columbia, it's easy to see that there is nothing that would stop yet another outlawed product from entering the black market.

It’s a fairly simple concept to understand; decreasing supply increases potential value. Inhibiting the import and the harvesting of shark fins would naturally increase the profit to be made in dealing to a clientele which is already willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a single fin.

It's apparent that it is not the supply which needs to be focused upon, but the demand. Many Chinese-Canadians enjoy the soup as a display of the success and milestones they have achieved. In their view, it's no more controversial than a shiny new Rolex or diamond necklace.

Francis Lam, writing in Salon magazine, argued that shark fin soup had a central place in his family's history:

“It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that much of my grandfather’s life was built around that soup, built around the idea that he could show the world and himself that he’d finally made it, that he could literally feed his family his success.” 

Maybe a better example is our western consumption of such luxury foods as foie gras or caviar. Both foods spark little criticism in Canada, even though the cruelty and the environmental consequences involved are just as serious. People eat these items not always because of how incredible they’re supposed to taste, but because they’re cornerstones of our culinary traditions, symbolizing wealth and power.

After passing legislation to ban the sale of shark fins in October last year, the city of Toronto was almost immediately hit by a human rights complaint -- a lucid example of the angry opposition such bans inspire. City Councilor Glenn De Baeremaeker tried to smooth over the situation, saying in the Toronto Sun“We’re not banning soup, we’re not banning weddings”.

It’s interesting to think about how he would feel if similar remarks were made regarding banning such a thing as say, turkey. Would Christmas and Thanksgiving ever feel the same?

Anna Ling Kaye notes in the Tyee that there seems to be “scapegoating going on” in the persecution of one culinary tradition. Why not enforce bans on such products as foie gras and caviar, bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass? Why the focus on one dish, one tradition?

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