Pacific Seafood Trading Company, in the heart of Oakland's Chinatown district, looks innocuous. Women with pink grocery bags and men pushing wire carts scurry by the corner store at 8th and Franklin streets. Inside, amid the gingko and dried roots, a pungent, earthy smell fills the air. At first glance, you'd never know that shops such as this one have become a battleground in a raging debate that pits charges of racism against animal cruelty.
But then the shark fins come into view. Dried and stacked by the hundreds in bins and baggies at the back of the store, some fins carry the blues and grays of the sea. Others have been stripped and bleached, but their spooky sleekness still calls to mind visions of the apex predator.
Across the street, a sign in the window of the New Gold Medal Restaurant advertises shark fin soup for $30 a bowl — a relative bargain. To make the delicacy, cooks soak and boil fins from Pacific Seafood Trading Company, and then strip off the threads of collagen. Shark fin soup was once a rarity reserved for the ruling classes, but as the Chinese middle class and expatriate communities have grown rapidly in the past two decades, demand for this traditional symbol of wealth has skyrocketed, as have prices.
Most of the herb shops in Chinatown feature fins tacked to the wall in bags, arranged in glass jars behind the register, or packed into plastic boxes emblazoned with the suggestion, "perfect gift." Prices run as high as $600 a pound, with a moderately priced fin going for about $35.
On a recent weekday evening, some New Gold Medal patrons thought the soup was a bit overrated. A teenage boy said it was gelatinous, while an older woman said the soup is watered down these days, not as good as it used to be. Still, polling shows that shark fin soup is no rarity here. About two-thirds of Asian-Americans in the Bay Area say they've tried it, although most eat it only occasionally. Diners at New Gold Medal said it's not an everyday food, but it makes special events special.
Oakland resident Christopher Chin used to feel the same way. When he was growing up, a wedding just wasn't a wedding without shark fin soup, he said. But then the scuba diving instructor renounced the delicacy after experiencing an epiphany while staring into the eyes of a bull shark in Fiji. "It was like when you're having a conversation with someone and they hold the gaze," he recalled. "It's a rare thing even among humans. I suddenly realized this animal was sentient." Chin later founded Oakland's Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education, which seeks to get people to think about where their seafood comes from.
But getting shopkeepers in Oakland's Chinatown to think about it is another matter. They're happy to discuss soaring fin prices or their product's medicinal and culinary value, but ask where the fins originated, and you get shrugs or vague references to Mexico or Hong Kong.
But the question of how shark fins make their way to Chinatown shops and restaurants is at the heart of a showdown that has been playing out in California since two Bay Area assemblymen introduced a bill last month that would ban the sale and import of fins.
Opponents of the proposed ban say it represents an unfair attack on Chinese-American culture and cuisine. They also contend that sharks aren't just killed for their highly prized fins, but also for their meat. "Costco sells shark meat," said Democratic state Senator Leland Yee at a press conference after the legislation was introduced. Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, has come out strongly against a ban. "So those sharks that come in — what are you going to do with that fin?"
But are sharks really being caught for their meat? And are shark fins just leftover byproducts that would otherwise be thrown away? According to numerous scientific studies and international trade statistics, the answer is a resounding "no."
Records and studies definitively show that nearly all shark fins are harvested through the cruel practice of "finning," whereby fishermen slice the fins off a sometimes still living shark and throw the body back into the ocean, where the animal bleeds out in a slow, horrible death. "When you kick sharks over the edge" of a boat, explained John McCosker, who is one of the world's foremost shark experts and is chairman of aquatic biology for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, "they spiral downward in this death spiral and lay on the bottom until they die."
In recent weeks, proponents of shark fin soup also have argued that the proposed California ban would unfairly harm legitimate fishermen who do not kill sharks solely for their highly prized fins. They contend that governments just need to do a better job at patrolling the seas and enforcing existing bans that make it illegal to harvest shark fins and throw what's left of the fish overboard.
But the worlds' oceans are vast, of course, and international trade data and scientific studies show that various fishing bans around the globe have done little to slow the burgeoning shark fin trade. Instead, the bans have spawned massive amounts of illegal finning that goes undetected by authorities.
As a result, experts say, the only effective way to curtail the worldwide slaughter of sharks is for governments to ban the actual sale and import of their fins. And such a ban in California, because of its huge market, could reverberate around the nation and the globe.