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Chinese restaurants in a stir about proposed shark fin ban

Owners say the fins are an essential part of Chinese cuisine and urge legislators to strengthen existing laws.

April 02, 2011|By Ching-Ching Ni, Los Angeles Times
  • Derek Ma, president of National Chinese Welfare Council, Los Angeles, shows a poster at press in Gourmet Island restaurant in Alhambra.
Derek Ma, president of National Chinese Welfare Council, Los Angeles,… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

First it was roast duck and rice noodles. Then it was cooked frogs and turtles. Now shark fin soup, the caviar of fine Chinese cuisine, is under threat from California legislators seeking to ban the possession, sale and consumption of shark fins in the state.

Owners of local Chinese restaurants gathered at Gourmet Island restaurant in Alhambra on Friday, vowing to save the centuries-old tradition.

"If we let them ban shark fin, they will come after other Chinese delicacies," said Derek Ma, the restaurant's owner and president of the National Chinese Welfare Council's Los Angeles branch. "This is very unfair to the Chinese people. If we don't say something now, the fine cuisine of China will disappear."

The bill was introduced in the state Legislature earlier this year by two Northern California Assembly members, Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael).

Fong is a Chinese American who grew up eating the delicacy but has said that he turned against it after he found out that the fishing and trading of fins has helped wipe out shark populations and disrupt the fragile ecosystem. He notes that fins are hacked off live sharks, which are thrown back into the water to drown.

Opponents of the ban say they are against the illegal and cruel killing of sharks. But they say a California ban won't stop the global demand, especially in Asia.

"This is not a California problem, this is an Asian problem," said Jackie Zhou, general director of the Happy Harbor restaurants in Alhambra and Rowland Heights.

A ban would hurt him financially, he said, because as much as a third of his business comes from serving shark fin soup, especially at wedding banquets and other important celebrations.

"If I am the host of a banquet and I don't have shark fin soup on the table, people will think I am cheap," said Zhou, adding that the amount of soup needed to serve a banquet table can cost hundreds of dollars.

Rather than an outright ban, the restaurateurs suggested that legislators work to strengthen an existing federal law that bans the practice of killing sharks solely for their fins and that penalties be stiffened for those who illegally kill or sell endangered sharks.

Kelly Wang, who was eating lunch at Gourmet Island, said she's not sure the soup needs to be saved.

"I usually tell my friends not to order it because it is so cruel, the way they get the fins," she said. "I know they say it's a tradition. But the times have changed. I don't believe they will go out of business without this one dish."

chingching.ni@latimes.com

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