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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.
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?
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.