California’s Shark Fin Ban Survives a Challenge

Yesterday a federal judge in Oakland smote down a lawsuit seeking to block enforcement of California’s shark fin ban. Lawmakers approved the ban a year ago. A law prohibiting restaurants from serving newly harvested fins takes effect in six months. Individuals and businesses had challenged the legislation, saying it discriminated against Chinese-Americans for a cultural expression long fixed in custom.

Supporters of the ban point to the environmental ravages of the shark trade: as many as 70 million creatures killed every year, hauled up, finned, and tossed back to sea.

The most thoughtful piece I’ve read on the fin question is Jonathan Kauffman’s two-year-old article in SF Weekly, "Shark's Fin—Understanding the Political Soup." Banqueting on shark fin soup isn’t exactly the keystone of Chinese culture that, say, mochitsuki is to Japan’s. Though as Kauffman points out, shark fin soup is a kind of cultural mucilage, the traditional adhesive for high-class social relationships.

Shark fin is materially different from foie gras, another substance banned in California, and yet it’s the same: an ingredient with questionable ethics, used as social currency. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton did the right thing yesterday in turning back shark fin’s apologists. Whether it’s about marriage or the capacity of the oceans to absorb shit-tons of industrial waste, human understanding evolves. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, laws advance at roughly the same clip.

Photo of shark fin soup at Gold Leaf Chinese Restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, by Flickr member avlxyz under Creative Commons

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.