Shark fin soup, conservation, and racism: A Storify of yesterday’s twitter discussion

Accusations of racism and cultural imperialism have long plagued the shark conservation movement. Earlier this week, a second lawsuit was filed in California opposing their shark fin ban. One of the reasons given for the Chinatown Neighborhood Association’s lawsuit was discrimination against citizens of Chinese descent. According to the San Francisco Examiner:

“[Chinatown Neighborhood Association Member Marcus] Lee noted that the law allows consumers to eat shark meat steaks, but not shark fin soup, leading to racial tensions. “How can you save the shark if you ban eating only the fins, but not the shark meat?” Lee asked. “This ruling is not the solution to the problem. In order to save the sharks, you might as well ban the whole shark entirely.” “

An earlier lawsuit against California’s fin ban, filed by the Asian-American Rights Committee of California, also pointed out the cultural significance of shark fin soup. According to the Huffington Post:

 ” “Shark fin soup is an Asian cultural delicacy with origins in the Ming Dynasty. It is a ceremonial centerpiece of traditional Chinese banquets, as well as celebrations of weddings and birthdays of one’s elders,” the committee wrote in its complaint. “

My personal views on this issue are complex. Populations of many species of sharks are declining at alarming rates (which has numerous negative ecological consequences), the single largest driver for these declines is demand for shark fin soup, and this demand primarily comes from Asian cultures. With very few exceptions, conservationists are not racist, and there are very good reasons to campaign for reducing shark fin soup consumption (and reducing shark fishing in general) . There’s a big difference between criticizing something because it’s different from your own culture and criticizing something because it creates negative ecological and economic ripple effects worldwide. However, when conservationists who are primarily Westerners criticize something that is done primarily by non-Westerners, it undeniably creates what politicians call troubling “optics”. In short, I don’t think campaigning to reduce shark fin consumption is racist, but I can understand how some people might.

I asked my twitter followers what they thought of the claim that criticizing shark fin soup is racist, and added some of the best contributions to the excellent discussion that resulted to a Storify. Check it out below, and feel free to continue the discussion in the comments below.

Shark fin soup, conservation, and racism

My twitter followers weigh in on whether claims that the conservation movement’s focus on shark fin soup is racism/cultural imperialism, as has often been claimed by shark fin fishermen and consumers.

Storified by David Shiffman · Thu, Jul 19 2012 09:27:54

Yesterday, the San Francisco Examiner reported that the Chinatown neighborhood association filed a lawsuit against California’s shark fin ban, claiming, among other things, that it discriminates against Chinese culture. I asked my twitter followers what they thought of this claim.
California #Shark #fin ban faces lawsuit | San Francisco Examiner Claims of "racism" resurface.David Shiffman
This isn’t the first time that anti- #shark #fin legislation has been called racist. Do you think there’s anything to that argument at all?David Shiffman
Obviously the intention is conservation and not racism, but is it even a little reasonable that people would see racism in the legislation?David Shiffman
A recent story about the IL #fin #ban said "Illinois is far from the ocean, but a lot of Asians live in Chicago". That troubles meDavid Shiffman
Does anyone understand why the focus on #fins and not other #shark issues (regardless of merit of this focus) can be perceived as racist?David Shiffman
Many followers were immediately skeptical of the claim that opposing shark fin soup is racist, and some saw ulterior motives in such claims
@WhySharksMatter no. and I grew up eating shark fin soup in hong kong. its bullshitbrian lam
@WhySharksMatter I don’t think it is done to on racial grounds, I think this is likely an excuse for it proponents to keep selling it.Mathew David Clough
@WhySharksMatter @flyingtrilobite @JacquelynGill @Seasaver for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t consider banning shark fin racist at allTommy Leung
@WhySharksMatter absolutely not. This is an environmental issue.. Nothing more.. Ridiculous argument, calling it racist..!!stollie shark lover
Several followers pointed out the difference between “race” and “culture”
@WhySharksMatter @flyingtrilobite there is a strong cultural element to shark fin – I’ve managed to convince my parents to not partake (1/2)Tommy Leung
@WhySharksMatter It is as racist as any cultural issue that happens to involve a culture predominantly of one race; (1/2)Calden Wloka
@flyingtrilobite @JacquelynGill @Seasaver @WhySharksMatter Additionally choice of food is that, a choice, it is a product of culture.Mathew David Clough
@WhySharksMatter The thing about culture is that it isn’t static. It is constantly changing based on the needs of the world and people.Katie Swanson
Some followers pointed out that the demand for shark fin soup comes primarily from Asians and opposition comes primarily from Westerners.
@WhySharksMatter Speaking as a 1st world hetero white male, no. Eating shark fins is a cultural feature, not a racial or genetic one.Glendon Mellow
@WhySharksMatter Because shark fins [soup] are predominately consumed by one ethnic community?StayAtHomeScientist
@WhySharksMatter Who is eating the soup? #notmeETK
@JacquelynGill @Seasaver @WhySharksMatter Toronto is incredibly multi-cultural, mostly white politicians: we banned shark fin. Racist?Glendon Mellow
Several people tried to draw analogies between shark fin soup and other culturally traditional foods, with limited success.
@flyingtrilobite @WhySharksMatter Does that mean demand cultural change is acceptable? Would US stop slaughtering for beef if India asked?Shane Gero
@flyingtrilobite @kejames @WhySharksMatter Don’t remember the racism card being played with the French and Foie Gras?Blue Planet Society
.@Seasaver @WhySharksMatter Racism = power + privilege, and so in that case fois gras isn’t applicable. Also, "French" is not a race.Jacquelyn Gill
@Seasaver @HandmadeKatie @flyingtrilobite @WhySharksMatter Yes, but that’s not the same as trying to stop the French eating it in France.Karen James
I asked about a point raised in the newspaper coverage of the lawsuit- the focus on shark fins rather than other forms of shark fishing.
@WhySharksMatter Shark meat used in fish and chips isn’t perceived as wasteful, or as cruel, as finning and throwing dying sharks overboardMarine Conservation
.@savingoceans Very true. But overfishing for #shark meat for fish and chips is still a big problem.David Shiffman
@flyingtrilobite @WhySharksMatter I am pro shark ban, but Cali should just ban meat as well then a non-issue and more functional really.Shane Gero
@kejames @seasaver @handmadekatie @flyingtrilobite @whysharksmatter I question the wisdom of saying eating shark fins is bad per say 1/2Clifford Hutt
@kejames @seasaver @handmadekatie @flyingtrilobite @whysharksmatter Finning is bad, but if whole shark is harvested why not eat the fins?Clifford Hutt
Several suggested a community-based education campaign 
@WhySharksMatter @seasaver Ultimately, I think any initiative should involve the community stakeholders, rather than top-down paternalism.Jacquelyn Gill
@sgero @seasaver @Whysharksmatter Sure but if we care about social justice, we also want to make sure conservation doesn’t alienate people.Jacquelyn Gill
@sgero @JacquelynGill @WhySharksMatter The biggest worry right now is lack of criticism aimed at countries because of political correctness.Blue Planet Society
.@Seasaver @sgero @JacquelynGill You don’t think a conservation measure will be more effective with local support?David Shiffman
@kejames @WhySharksMatter True. People behind cultural traditions need to be respected even if tradition itself best abandoned.Glendon Mellow
@WhySharksMatter @Seasaver @sgero @JacquelynGill I think local support is vital personally, education is the way forward.Mathew David Clough
.@WhySharksMatter @Seasaver @JacquelynGill To be clear: Education and local support critical but ALL people are slow to change perspectivesShane Gero
As always, I appreciate the stimulating discussion. Thanks to all who participated! 
It seems like most of my followers don’t agree that focusing on #shark #fin can reasonably be considered racism/cultural imperialism.David Shiffman
Thanks for an interesting discussion, all.David Shiffman


  1. Patric Douglas · July 20, 2012

    Great post and discussion David. It’s an issue that has a lot of nuance to it. Let me play devils advocate here and suggest that yes, to some degree there’s been racism.

    Let me explain.

    If you go back and read many of the comments on anti-shark fin media and articles leading up to the ban in California for the most part you see white anglo saxon names attached to many comments about the Chinese community that were simply put – outrageous.

    It was a prevalent theme and one that was left completely unchecked.

    By letting these unbalanced voices get away with suggestions that “all Asians are like locusts” or in the case of Canada where a letter was circulated suggesting that Chinese Canadians would be poisoned and no one in a shark fin ban leadership position said or did anything:

    The effort gave away a major trump card, the moral high ground.

    It’s a leadership thing. Let’s face it for the most part this effort began as a western anglo saxon effort here in California and came on the heels of another very contentious effort to ban the sale of live frogs and turtles directed at the Chinese American community.

    That ban was successful but overturned by the courts a year later.

    That ban was also filled with unbalanced individuals who said and wrote some pretty horrible things about the Chinese community so in context they were already reeling from one perceived anglo effort, and then came the fin ban with much of the same ingrained nastiness.

    The fact is no one wants to admit or even engage the racism discussion because they feel that by doing so they will lose the moral high ground or it will take away from the debate and noble effort to ban fins.

    By not doing so, by not stopping to counter the few online who were overtly racist, that is now a moot point.

    The California courts have this one and where it goes from here will be a lesson on how to manage or not manage food bans for years to come.

    To sum up my personal views.

    I would love to see shark fin banned and believe it will happen but not in the way most who seek bans want it to happen. I am also very sensitive to cultural issues be they food, religion, or other. I think when you have an issue like food you have to see it in a cultural context first and foremost.

    Nothing in the world speaks to culture like food it is the very fabric of a culture regardless of it’s pedigree. For one culture to suggest to another that it cannot consume a thing and ram home legislation in a short period of time is not wise.

    I am a huge fan of efforts like those of Claudia Li and her team in Canada with Shark Truth who has, in the face of great cultural push back, managed to bring awareness and change to her own community in a way that is both admirable and downright smart:

    Claudi serves as a template for change within a community and while what she is doing is not fast, there’s no denying that it is working and the specter of counter lawsuits that can set precedent and set back efforts for decades are non existent with this particular brand of conservation change.

  2. jimmy · August 9, 2012

    Both incredibly racist and incredibly stupid and ineffective. Problem is this is a non-profit campaign and people who work for non-profits are all pseudo-scientists/pseudo-policy makers with no real solutions except to yell loud and solicit donations. Problem with shark fins is that its an underground global trade. Shark finning is already illegal. So banning it is going to do what???? ALL SEAFOOD IMPORTS should have insanely strict chain of custody and if its not compliant with laws trhere should be extreme fines imposed. Any seafood that is imported from outside the USA is suspect. Why do we impose Magnusen-Stevens on our fisheries and then allow seafood imports from anywhere in the world??? Shark fins should be landed attached to the shark and tagged before its removed. Tag should have to stay on until the moment its cooked.

    • jimmy · August 9, 2012

      and this by the way is the method already used for red abalone in CA, so why not sharks are well??? In the meantime, other people in California are still allowed to shoot sharks with bow and arrow for sport and this is perfectly OK with everyone because they aren’t Asian (mostly white dudes in camo hats) and thats the truth of the whole matter. There are plenty of videos on YouTube if you don’t believe me.

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