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Respect, Extinction, and a Bowl of Shark Fin Soup

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My friend Stephen comes from Chinese lineage. Actually his name isn't Stephen. I've changed it to spare him additional ire and whispered remarks from his Chinese relations who are, at turns, baffled and upset each time he objects to the serving of shark fin soup at family celebrations.

My friend Stephen has made his living as an underwater photographer and filmmaker and knows the oceans better than most. He has descended beneath many of the world's most glorious waters and, increasingly, many of the most ravaged. Among his many honors, my friend Stephen is the only photographer to have been awarded a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship, the world's most prestigious award in ocean conservation and outreach. Not that he would tell you this, one of the many reasons I admire him. With full disclosure in mind I will also tell you he is something of a curmudgeon, gruff and blunt, and sometimes rude, a shield (I believe) he wields to disguise a heart that cares deeply for the world's oceans.

Most pertinent to the subject at hand, my friend Stephen's vast store of undersea knowledge carries absolutely no weight when his extended family gathers.

"Any time we have a family gathering I say, 'Hey, please don't serve shark fin soup' and every time they still do it," he says.

My friend Stephen sees his place clearly.

"I'm the black sheep of the family," he says.

On July 1 California absolved Stephen of any need to further cement his reputation as the family's squeaky wheel. From this month on it is illegal to sell, possess, or distribute shark fins in the state of California.

As with any legal decision these days, in certain arenas there has been a collective caterwaul.

"The law is unfair," said one Chinatown market owner. "Why single out Chinese people in California when shark fins are legal in many other states?"

Proving that there is more than one view in every mirror, Aimee David, director of conservation policy at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, provided one answer, although it is no doubt disagreeable to the Chinatown merchant.

"This is an important milestone in the global campaign to end shark finning," said David. "California's example has inspired several states to act, and we hope many more will follow suit."

Actually Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Maryland, Delaware, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands have already enacted legislation making it illegal to sell shark fins. According to some news reports, the Chinese government has announced it will phase out shark fin soup from official functions within three years. This is no small matter, a bit like Lady Gaga dressing down or Washington D.C. eschewing fireworks on the Fourth of July.

It is terrible and fascinating, this matter of shark fin soup: sometimes it is both. Shark fin soup dates back to the Ming Dynasty. It was reserved for emperors, a symbol of status over one of the world's most dangerous predators. Its symbol of status remains. Not everyone can pay $42 (and more) for a bowl of soup.

In truth the shark fins add virtually no flavor; their main boon is in adding a gelatinous texture to the soup, achieved through complex and painstaking preparation. Having achieved perfect texture, cooks often toss in chicken and ham for flavor. I can tell you that shark fin soup is delicious. I spent much of my boyhood in Asia. In those longer ago days than I care to admit, sharks were more plentiful and the soup was more affordable. Fishermen were not killing an estimated 73 million sharks a year for their fins. But even then they were a highly prized foodstuff.

I remember the huge bins of dried shark fins we passed as my mother led me through open air markets with their smells of cooking meat and clove cigarettes and the shouting of, well, everyone. As a collector of animals living and dead, I suspect I may have asked my mom for a shark fin to take home. It was a more innocent time. But I do not offer this as excuse. I offer it as apology, for there is no good excuse for ignorance.

Older now, I have seen how these fins begin their journey to market. Several years ago, aboard a boat off Ecuador, we encountered a small fishing vessel, little more than a thimble bobbing on the sea. The three men were hard at work in the shallows off an island, busily stacking fins they had just hacked away. When we came close we looked down into the water. Three sharks thrashed, finless, on the rocky bottom. I can still see them. I still don't know how much longer they lived down there, helplessly writhing. If we can look on such a thing and not consider it a terrible waste, then I fear for us.

Often the divide between cultures is vast. This explains wars and bigotry and religious misunderstandings and the inscription I once saw on a t-shirt displayed in a Hong Kong market ("You Are My Love, My Angle. Don't Treat Me Like a Potato"). Yes we should respect the desires of other cultures to eat what they wish. But are there not broader questions that cross the borders of humankind? Should we not extend this same respect to a fellow inhabitant of this planet, a creature that has existed, in some instances, for 600 million years? Certain shark species have been reduced by as much as 90 percent. Extinction is forever. Is it worth texture in a bowl of soup?

I am proud of California and happy for my friend Stephen who no longer has to suffer the slings and arrows of his relatives, at least regarding the matter of shark fin soup. But I am curious, too. What sort of world would it be if we listened clearly without self-interest clamoring in our ears, if we were open-minded enough to make the decision that is best for the whole?

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