Perhaps the most surprising thing to many (including me) about Hawaii’s newly adopted ban on shark fin soup, which takes effect on July 1, 2011, is that it is still legal in the U.S. at all.
The Hawaii ban, though more than a year away, includes heavy fines for anyone caught selling the soup in the state: $5,000 for a first offense, $50,000 for a second offense and up to a year in jail for a third.
Regarded a delicacy by many in China and Japan, the tasteless soup is mostly an extravagant addition to menus at high-end birthdays, weddings and business affairs.
That the soup’s popularity results in 70 to 100 million sharks being killed each year doesn’t seem to faze many in Asia. But to witness a shark being finned is the height of environmental and animal abuse: They are slashed off the still-living animal with sharp knives and its still breathing carcass tossed back into the ocean, to sink to the floor and die.
In Hawaii a bowl of shark fin soup—tasteless, with the fin is not eaten but thrown out like chicken bones—can be had for $17; at fancy affairs in Hong Kong, which traffics between 50 and 80 percent of shark fins in the world, a bowl can fetch $1,000.
In a confusing and obviously tough-to-enforce legislative move dating back to the Clinton administration, the U.S. banned shark fins from being imported into the country on ships registered in the U.S.—but not foreign vessels. It also mandated that fins could not be imported without being attached to the shark.
Apparently that law has been ignored, and Hawaii, a state that entertains many visitors from Japan and China, has stepped up as the first state to ban fins outright. Like the U.S., many countries ban shark finning in their waters but laws on the open ocean are easy to evade. A national Shark Conservation Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, but has yet to be adopted as law.
Other states and countries are said to be watching the Hawaii legislation closely, and similar laws are being considered from Malaysia to Canada. In a state where 13 percent of residents are Chinese, only about a dozen restaurants serve the soup.
The timing of the law is essential since open ocean sharks are considered to be at great risk; an effort this past spring in Qatar by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to get international protection failed in part due to effective lobbying by Japanese representatives—the same lobbyists who succeeded in keeping similarly-endangered bluefin tuna off the list.
I’ve walked into restaurants advertising shark fin recipes in Japan and China and have asked tasters to describe the delicacy. As best I can decipher it apparently has less taste than chicken consommé.
Despite some out-moded beliefs, there are no aphrodisiacal attributes to shark fins. In fact, heavy consumption may cause sterility due to mercury in the sharks. But as China’s middle-class grows, with more and more disposable income available to hundreds of millions, so does its demand for shark fins.