Shark Fin Ban Battle Gets Hot: Which Side is Yao Ming On?

By
Photo: Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Remember the shark-fin ban being bandied about in the California State Assembly? Well, it passed in May and here's where the trouble really gets brewing. As the bill dangles now before the State Senate (not unlike like those flailing little legs in the Jaws films), sides are forming, with one group of influential power-brokers seeking to preserve the traditional Chinese delicacy and another, more glamorous assortment of stars and activists opposed to the possession and sale of this endangered animal part. So, who are the players?

The Los Angeles Times reintroduces us to the bill's opposition, which includes San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Democratic Senators Leland Yee (San Francisco) and Ted Lieu (Torrance). Sen. Yee feels the ban to be "an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine," and has proposed an amendment that would allow the sale of shark fins that are legally caught in California or sustainably harvested in China, arguing that the bill so far doesn't ban shark meat, just shark fins, thus is unjustly singles out consumers of the fin. You've probably witnessed enough gross videos of squirming shark amputees to know that finning is a different ballgame than fishing for meat.

The opposition has so far been vocal in the halls of government and on the streets. The issue arose prominently in the recent race for S.F. mayor, while Chinese importers and restaurateurs have reportedly hired lobbyists to support their cause. Chinatown residents have even appeared by the busload at the state Capitol to defend the ingredient. Even chef Charles Phan says he was pressured to oppose the ban by his peers, in a piece Jonathan Kauffman about shark fins, wherein the great Cecilia Chiang admitted shark fin soup was more status symbol than tradition.

The supporters of the bill are lead by Paul Fong, the Democratic Assemblyman (Sunnyvale) who helped to sponsor the bill in the first place. Fong dismisses the idea of adhering to tradition, telling The L.A. Times, "Anything that is unhealthy, that the culture is practicing, we should stop doing it. We used to bind women's feet, and that was unhealthy for the woman."

More glamorous are the celebrities who have joined the fight. Obviously, Leonardo DiCaprio is in on this one, and last week, the actor joined forces with WildAid, The Natural Resources Defense Council, and The U.S. Humane Society to urge Congress to "Save the Shark." Leo's comrades include such starlets he probably wants to get to know better as Scarlett Johanssen, Megan Fox, Kesha, and Jessica Alba, who almost did a little time for her short-lived career in graffiti activism after wheat-pasting posters of Great White sharks around Oklahoma City.

Chinese NBA superstar Yao Ming has a dog in this fight too, having put out his own YouTube PSA wherein a handsome, suited-up Ming gets all irked watching a bleeding shark in a fish tank while he's trying to eat his pricey shark fin soup. The message? If Yao can turn it down, can't you?

And of course, the die-hards at Monterey Bay Aquarium and California Academy of Sciences, along with various other environmental groups, are gunning against the sale and distribution of shark fin, hoping to end the cruel practice that scientists blame for devastating the shark population.

In the end, it may be up to an even bigger star to push the pendulum in the right (or would it be left) direction. Washington and Hawaii have already put similar bans in place, and none other than The President of The United States has signed a bill to shore up a federal ban on finning. That is, if Obama is needed at all in this fight. S.F. Weekly recently reported that 70% of California voters support the ban themselves.

Battle over shark fin soup heats up in California [LAT]