Arts, Culture & Media

California's Shark Fin Battle

"My god! Look at this. There must be thousands of them here!"

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That's celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay on British television aghast at a stockpile in China of small, grey shark fins. They are used in shark fin soup, an ancient Asian delicacy found worldwide, traditionally at special occasions. The fin is actually tasteless, but when boiled down it adds a stringy, chewy texture to a delicate broth. A bowl of it can run up to $50–or $350 for a pound of dried shark fin.

But there's growing worry about the shark business and what's known as finning.

"What it means is that the fins of the shark are removed at sea and the body is dumped at sea," said Peter Knights, who runs WildAid, a San Francisco-based group out to protect the tens of millions of sharks killed yearly. He helped get China to ban shark fin soup from its government banquets, and persuaded California lawmakers to ban the shark fin trade altogether. Other states are doing the same.

"The shark fin trade is a huge multinational business," Knights said. "It's devastated shark populations and something's got to change otherwise there will be no sharks left."

But Michael Kwong, manager at San Francisco's Hop Woo Shark's Fin Company, which distributes thousands of fins to restaurants and stores throughout America, says he already follows US federal laws. Those laws let Kwong bring ashore a whole shark to sell its meat, skin–and fins.

But California's new law, in a move to stop the fin trade cold, makes it illegal for Kwong to possess the profitable fin.

"You're talking to me, I'm one small entrepreneur in the city and county of San Francisco," said Kwong. "There are lots of people out there who will flout the law. This law has forced the shark fin industry to go underground."

That remains to be seen. But one thing for certain is that the anti-finning chorus in the U.S. is growing. Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and basketball's Yao Ming are trumpeting the need to save sharks.

Yet some say California's law is biased.

Sitting at a Chinatown cafe, Taylor Chow, a seafood dealer, said the law discriminates. It's too easy to target shark fins because only a minority in America connects with the food, he said.

"My memory with shark fin soup is the family gathering. Good times," he said. "When you say, 'You people are uncivilized, barbarian,' I cannot accept that. We don't want to be the scapegoat for the problems of the world."

It's about conservation, not race, says Paul Fong, the Chinese-American assemblyman behind the ban.

"We had to treat it like ivory," Fong said. "It's impossible to track it. It's just easier to ban it. I mean, it's like foot binding. That was outgrown and we can outgrow this as well."

And some chefs are offering one solution: fake fin.

Meet Corey Lee, the young chef owner of San Francisco's exclusive Benu restaurant. His dish?

"It's a variation on a traditional Cantonese version of a shark fin soup," Lee said. "The interesting thing about what we serve is that the actual shark fin is faux. So there's a tang, or a broth that's made with chicken and Jinhua ham, Shaoxing wine, and it's also served with a black truffle custard because we need to introduce that luxury back into the dish."

Chef Lee's faux fin is part of a $180 tasting menu. Maybe it's these chefs, creating alternatives to endangered ingredients, who stand to make legal killings in the culinary world.

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    Faux shark fin, a dish served at San Francisco’s Benu restaurant. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

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    Dried shark fins for sale in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

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