What’s Wrong with Banning Shark Fin Soup?

January 26, 2017

Earlier this month, Air China became the first major Chinese airline to ban the shipment of shark fin cargo. The move was widely lauded by environmental activists. Each year, across the globe, roughly 73 million sharks are slain for their fins. Most end up in Chinese shark fin soup, a delicacy with a long, storied history within China. To environmentalists, Air China's ban seemed to be part of a promising trend: In 2012, China officially banned shark fin soup from governmental banquets, and Air China now joins 35 other airlines and 17 shipping companies across the world with its clampdown.

Shark finning has long been banned in the United States. A formal ban on the practice of shark finning came with 2000's Shark Finning Prohibition Act, followed by 2010's more restrictive Shark Conservation Act that closed a crucial loophole of earlier legislation. Around that same time, states began to introduce bans on both the sale and buying of shark fins. To date, 11 states have imposed this formal ban.

Photo by Alpha

But the flood of politicians who advocated for this ban under the pretense of environmental consciousness sparked a vigorous debate about whether politicians were scapegoating a minority group that didn’t have much of a toehold in the political arena. The debate reached a precipice in 2011, as the ban became a more popular political position to stake. At whose expense were politicians scoring environmental points?

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Perhaps the most incisive writing on the subject came from Francis Lam, who wrote a March 2011 piece for Salon in the thick of this discussion. In that piece, Lam made the argument that in spite of the environmental boons of a ban—and there are many, none of which he dismissed—there was a more subtle dynamic at play, too. What Lam saw in these politicians was a whiff of cultural derision at the delicacy of the “other." Enshrining this policy was not just a covert way of passing judgment on someone else's food; it was a way of punching down at a group who didn't possess much political power.

In the six years since Lam wrote that piece, numerous other states have introduced shark fin bans. Banning shark fin has become more popular both in the States and in China, but it's still fraught, and the question Lam posed in that piece is pertinent as the ban spreads across China. I spoke to Lam last week about his thoughts on what’s gained and lost in a battle that seems nothing but environmentally friendly on its surface. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

MAYUKH SEN: From your perspective, what do you think the non-Chinese perception of eating shark fin is? I’ve encountered a few people who think it’s "gross" and "disgusting," and they tend to speak of it in a pretty othering way.

FRANCIS LAM: I don’t know if I could—or even want to say—this is what I think white people think of shark fin soup. But there are definitely dishes that people from different cultures around the world eat. As a result, we’ve all been in school where someone says, oh, that’s gross, or that our lunch is stinky. Many of us have had those things said to us at one point or another. Growing up in New Jersey, I had a friend whose grandfather came from Italy, and I remember stories of his parents being too embarrassed to eat garlic in public. Garlic marked them as being Italian. A generation ago, it was “weird” to be Italian. To have a group of people marked as weird or strange means that the food they eat might be labeled as the same.

Shark fin soup falls in that category. It’s the kind of dish that, if you’re not familiar with it and didn’t grow up eating it, people might look at it and say, really? There’s a little bit of a gross factor, too, rooted in the idea that “normal” people don’t eat shark. Then, of course, there’s the part that makes it a fairly complicated issue: The harvesting of shark fin does seem to be pretty brutal. There is also the fact that the industry of shark fin has grown to a point where it has a serious, sophisticated environmental impact. Take out the predator from any ecosystem and that throws the whole ecosystem on its head. (Editor's note: Currently, there are 74 species of sharks who are in danger of going extinct.)

MS: You talk about your grandfather’s relationship to shark fin soup in your Salon piece, but what was your personal relationship to shark fin soup?

FL: I certainly ate it growing up on special occasions. You’d see it at events like weddings and other celebratory times, because it’s, well, a celebratory dish. I have a particularly wonderful memory of my grandfather wanting to take us out for a really special dinner where we ate shark fin soup. It was delicious. The soup was amazing. I’m not a shark fin connoisseur, but what I'd been told by family members was that shark fin is usually thin and shreddy—the cheap stuff, anyway. This, though, was like buccatini.

Did this soup taste good because it’s shark fin and shark fin is inherently delicious? I don’t really know. But the dish's importance to us, and what made it special to eat, was cultural. Maybe there was an element of that in eating shark fin soup: Knowing that my culture really values this dish, that my family really values this dish, too. For them to share it with me was an act of generosity.

MS: I think a nuance that a lot of people may miss is one that you gestured toward in your article. You feel that this debate is about politicians taking a shot at a minority group with a minority position who's easy to offend without costing legislators a lot of political capital. Can you expand on that power dynamic?

FL: We often talk about abstract social power dynamics, but what I really meant to convey there was a statement about how elected officials and legislators start making policy. I want to be careful not to impugn, in a blanket way, the motives of any legislator who wants to impose a shark fin ban. That said, I could certainly imagine there were cases where a politician was thinking that they can score some political points by making themselves seem like champions of the environment and protectors of poor, innocent sharks. Who would they piss off doing that? In this case of shark fin, it doesn’t really matter if politicians offend Chinese folks, because that constituency's votes don’t add up to a whole lot.

Again, I don’t want to say that these politicians are racists who hate Chinese people. But I can imagine a lot of elected officials saying, hey, this is a good and painless way to score environmental points, and we’ll upset some people who probably don’t vote that much anyway.

I’m a little bit conflicted about this particular issue. I don’t like the idea of a minority group having something they care about cast aside and dismissed just because they’re too small to vote their concerns back into being. If more politicians were serious about improving the lives of animals crucial to food production, maybe they'd actually be trying to make more of an effort to, say, clean up factory farms that provide most of the beef in this country. No one’s trying to tackle what’s going on with beef in this country, because it's riskier. More people would get upset. The wrong people would get upset.

Let’s see some political courage. If politicians are going to be serious about confronting these grave environmental concerns, I’d love to see some leadership on addressing these issues in a way that may involve more people inconveniencing themselves. For me, my reason for writing that piece six years ago was to use this ban as a lens for how policies that affect food production get made at all. The shark fin row seemed like the kind of debate that, on its surface, highlighted the lack of leadership and political courage in our policy-making class. Ironically, in showing the one environmental issue one politician will go up to bat for, positions against shark fin also told us what other battles they weren't as willing to fight.

Where do you fall on this debate? Do you see the implications of banning shark fin? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Elaine April 6, 2017
Barbaric practices of any kind, such as those seen in the 'harvesting' of fins from living sharks, should be banned worldwide, full stop. So should 'factory' farming of beef and other animals, and for the same reason. We shouldn't care about the hurty-feels of individuals who have fond memories of the results of these barbaric practices. Get over it, and grow up. This isn't good animal husbandry; it's butchery.
Joan S. February 10, 2017
This is a ridiculous conclusion. Just because your ancestors did it and you think you are being respectful to your guests. We know better now and shark fin soup in acceptable for any reason, I am not sure if I am going great to read Food52 anymore.
Joan S. February 10, 2017
I made a mistake above -- I meant shark soup is NOT acceptable for any reason. I am not sure if I am going to read Food52 anymore.
christel January 29, 2017
hmmmmm, let s become vegan, why dont we?
Martin B. January 27, 2017
Reading this piece was a through-the-looking-glass experience. It's all about a minority feeling picked upon and not about the reason for the shark fin ban: that shark populations around the world are plummeting because of the money to be made. If they continue to fall, it will have a catastrophic impact on marine ecosystems.

It's also takes a very insular American viewpoint. China has the largest population in the world and it the misguided status-driven demand from there that has created this problem. Ethnic Chinese might be a minority in the US but not on a global scale. Come on, Food52, if you aspire to journalism, you have to do better than this.
sydney January 26, 2017
Food52 is weakest when it gets political. The [fill in the blank]-as-victim is coming straight from the trendy, on-point Social Justice Warrior network. Stretches credulity when it bleeds into the food media. An Asian-American is victimized if he can't get a bowl of shark fin soup? Really? My immigrant ancestors arrived here with a bunch of backward habits that we've since discarded. Big deal.

The Food52 perspective is backward: The issue on a shark fin ban needs to be on the actual shark victim, not fantasy human victim. And casting -- no fishing pun intended -- the Chinese as a powerless minority group is statistically/demographically/globally bizarre. Why no quote on the ban from an Air China representative?

Further, I see no double standard: pro-organic, anti-GMO, anti-industrial food Americans of all 'ethnicities' have been fighting corporate food culture with their awful policymakers (not all of whom are demon Christian white men) for a few decades.

Unfortunate to see Food52 embracing SJW victim culture and inviting it into the kitchen. If Food52 wants to be so edgy and controversial, it could start by reading PubMed research and asking questions about GMO foods, aluminum in the kitchen, silicone baking material, factory-farmed meat, herbicides and pesticides, BPA plastics, the sugar lobby, and a host of other food issues that affect ALL humans on the planet, not just particular whining "victim" groups.
Kimberly January 27, 2017
I didn't perceive this to be about the Chinese, as much as it is about the political stance of Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans. China's politics are not the US's politics, and in American politics and culture, Asian Americans are a minority. I don't see anything wrong with questioning the motives of legislation that seemingly targets one group. I also don't see how this plays into "victim culture;" political positioning often produces scapegoats out of minority groups and the marginalized. So while I agree with Tami that finding a more sustainable and humane way to fish these sharks would be preferable, I also think it's at least worth examining the reasons why, as Francis argues, this seems to be a big issue for politicians that don't also go after Big Agriculture, factory-farmed meat as you mentioned, the effects of food lobbies on American diets, etc. it could go on.

Mayukh: another good piece, I think you open a lot of discussions on Food52 that are worth having
aroseygoat January 27, 2017
Sydney, I encourage you to give some more thought to your opinion that social justice shouldn't be "invited into the kitchen". From my perspective, food--it's production, our access to it, the culture around its consumption, etc.--is an important part of the overall conversation about equity. Yes, the production of shark fin soup is problematic, and arguably the culture around its consumption is/needs to be shifting (both in the United States and abroad). But, the production of most of our beef/eggs/almonds/etc. is also problematic, and the culture around those foods' consumption also must change. We're not going to come up with a workable plan for the culture shifts that need to take place unless we talk about it, and I think that Food52 is one really good venue for having this conversation.

I, for one, am really happy to see Food52 address environmental and human justice issues as they relate to food. Thanks!
Tara January 26, 2017
Wonderful article. I love that you and Francis clearly point out how policy makers pick and choose their battles. I wish there were more examples of government being brave and standing up against more formidable opponents.
Sophie January 26, 2017
This is a tough (and controversial) subject.

People don't like killing sharks and consider the method in which is done is barbaric (which it is.) But our system of factory farming is also cruel, brutal, and inhumane.

Anyone who is against shark fin soup and eats factory farmed animals is a hypocrite. There is absolutely an attitude of "otherness" going on here, which helps people distinguish their eating habits apart from someone else's. It's not nice to admit we might also be wrong.
Tami P. January 26, 2017
Factory farming is a nasty business, I agree, and I do not buy or use any of their products. I am lucky enough to be financially able to make that choice. Many are not. I think shark fins are different because they are a luxury item. Again, I would feel differently about it if the entire shark were harvested and used in a humane and sustainable way.
Max H. January 26, 2017
I disagree with the harvesting of Shark fins due to its ecological impacts and in general disagree with Francis Lam in three major regards:
1. Shark fins are harvested in such a way that all it does is cause unnecessary pain to living animals that studies have shown to be the smartest of all species of fish.
2. Even if all of the shark is used there would be a greater demand for it so it will become cheaper and people will start to harvest more of it which will result in less predators resulting in a destroyed ecosystem.
3. To compare factory farming to Shark fins is understandable, they both harm the environment massively and cause pollution but the reason people aren't picking on factory farms as much at the moment is because of the scale of the problems. The shark fin business is minute in comparison to the factory farming business and factory farming, unlike harvesting shark fins, isn't currently illegal in all senses of the word. It is sensible to crunch down on the weaker Shark fin business in comparison to the factory farming conglomerate.
HalfPint January 26, 2017
I feel the same way as @Tami Pu'u. I've had shark fin soup at weddings. It's good, but my impression was that it was on the menu to show off family wealth and prestige. Like "Look at us, we have enough money to have shark fin soup at this wedding". I'm sure this is not the intent on the part of the family. Truth be told, I find the imitation shark fin to be just as delicious as the real thing, without the guilt and harm to sharks and the ecosystem.
foofaraw January 26, 2017
But it is, "Look at us, we have enough money to have shark fin soup at this wedding" is partly the reason why shark fin soup, abalone, etc can be in wedding menu. Wealth is part of 'saving face'. Vegetables are not good enough for saving face, unless it is made by 5star chef (then again, it will be correlated to wealth again because it shows that you are wealthy enough to pay that 5 star chef)
Tami P. January 26, 2017
It's not a matter of disliking the dish, it's how the fins are collected. They catch the shark, slice off the fins, and return the animal to the ocean to die. I wouldnt have a problem with responsnble, sustainable fishing of shark where the whole animal is used.