By Aidan Langston, JCamp reporter
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From the Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea, fishermen around the world capture sharks, cut off their fins and hurl the live animals back into the water to die. Their fins then travel to shops and restaurants from Hong Kong to Boston’s Chinatown, where they are used, among other purposes, to thicken a soup that has long been a centerpiece of Chinese traditional banquets.
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For decades, there was little controversy in Asian communities over shark fin soup, and little knowledge of its existence outside those populations. A push to end the collection practice, known as finning, has culminated this year in a new Massachusetts state law. It takes effect Sept. 1 and bans the trafficking and consumption of shark fins. Animal welfare advocates condemn finning, despite its history and tradition in Chinese communities; younger Asian-Americans mostly accepted environmental arguments for the ban with a collective shrug.
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Gov. Deval Patrick signed “An Act Prohibiting the Possession, Sale, Trade and Distribution of Shark Fins” at the New England Aquarium on July 24. Violators will be fined up to $1,000 and subject to prison time of up to 60 days, and their fishing licenses may be suspended or revoked.
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“With the passing of this law, Massachusetts builds upon its long history of animal protection and environmental stewardship,” said Patrick in a statement. He added that he believes the act will “ensure the conservation of sharks and our oceans for generations to come.”
Jessie Chou, a Boston resident, said she is used to the notion of eating shark and that “it’s kind of weird to have a law” banning consumption of the fins. But Chou, 23, added that she believes shark fin’s appeal lies mostly in its ability to serve as a status symbol.
“People want to show that they have money, and it’s expensive,” Chou said. “We eat other animals, but we kill them in other ways that are more humane. People shouldn’t eat shark fin soup because of how they get the shark fin.”
Chinterna Vong, a student at Suffolk University in Boston, agreed. Vong, 24, said she heard about the methods used to obtain shark fins and decided to “never going to eat it again.” She said the Massachusetts ban “is not really targeting the culture” of Chinese communities, and that “animal cruelty is not right, ever.” Vong also has concerns about finning.
“You’re making the shark deformed,.” Vong said. “You don’t cut the head off a cow. If they ate the whole shark for food, that would be okay.”
Local environmental groups, including the MSPCA-Angell and the New England Aquarium, were supportive of the ban.
“We are delighted to get the bill passed,” said Rob Halpin, director of public relations for the MSPCA, “and we are delighted that the governor signed the bill in person.”
Both houses of the Massachusetts General Court passed the bill, with broad support from both sides of the aisle. Massachusetts joins eight other states that have prohibited the use of the fins since 2010, including states with notable Chinese populations, like Hawaii, California and New York.
In the interim, Chinatown establishments have taken different tacks to respond to the new law. Some restaurants still serve shark fin soup, which can cost as much as $200 for a large bowl. Others have switched to imitation alternatives, or stopped serving the dish altogether. Restaurant staff across the board were defensive on the topic and refused to speak at length.
Some Asian-American groups have spoken out against government action to stop the fin trade. The Asian American Rights Committee of California and the Chinatown Neighborhood Association of San Francisco filed suit against a California law that went into effect in 2013, alleging racial bias in the state’s decision to ban a product consumed primarily by a population of color. The case was dismissed.
“We cannot let culture and tradition dictate our response to animal cruelty,” said Halpin. He argued that the MSPCA did not single out Asian-American communities by promoting the passage of the bill: the organization has also confronted the Massachusetts trapping and hunting communities, which he said make a similar claim to “cultural ties to a practice that goes back generations.”
“We fight animal cruelty irrespective of whether those practices are important to a particular group,” he said.
Lu Wang of Boston said “there are other cultural things that are culturally much more significant” to Chinese-Americans. “If they tried to ban cooking with peanut oil, or close the Chinese schools, that would be different,” said Wang, 25. She added, “If it’s going to be banned because it’s environmentally harmful, it should be banned.”
Peter Jiang, who was visiting Boston from Kentucky, acknowledged the history of cooking shark fin in East Asia. Jiang, 24, expressed concern, however, that the practice is not necessarily acceptable to a broader American population.
“Some people are crazy about the Chinese culture, but I’m neutral,” he said. “It’s Chinese culture, but this is Massachusetts, U.S.A.”