POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 22, 2012
NEW YORK » Large glass bottles of desiccated shark fins grace the upper shelves of nearly every convenience store and grocery in Manhattan's Chinatown, bearing price tags — from $100 to more than $500 per pound — that reflect the market value of a delicacy that has been served for centuries.
Shark fin soup is a traditional Chinese banquet dish, believed to bring good luck and numerous health benefits. Today, it is mostly served at weddings and other celebrations as the ultimate demonstration of a host's wealth and hospitality.
But now, that tradition is slowly being legislated off menus and market shelves across parts of the United States.
Tuesday, legislators in New York state announced a bill that, following the example of Western states, would ban the sale, trading, possession and distribution of shark fins, possibly as of 2013. California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington are implementing similar bans that were passed last year, while Florida, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia have legislation pending.
The New York bill is sponsored in the Assembly by Alan Maisel, Linda B. Rosenthal and Grace Meng, who represents a heavily Asian district of Queens and is the only Asian-American in the Assembly. Identical bills are expected to be introduced in both houses of the Legislature.
Meng, the daughter of immigrants who worked in and owned Chinese restaurants, said at a news conference in Manhattan on Tuesday that she "loved shark fin soup."
‘'This is going to be a huge adjustment for the community," she added, "but it's important to be responsible citizens."
Scientists estimate that as many as 73 million sharks are killed annually to satisfy the appetite for shark fin soup, leading some species to the brink of extinction and depleting oceans of a key ecosystem predator. Since the fin is so much more valuable than the rest of the shark, fishermen often slice it off and push the still-writhing shark back into the sea to die — although many governments ban the practice.
At the same time, younger generations of Chinese diners, in the West but also in places like Hong Kong and Shanghai, have displayed far less devotion to a dish that they view as environmentally unsound. Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star, has campaigned against the consumption of shark fin soup with the conservation group Wild Aid in both Asia and North America.
While many restaurants in Chinatown said that the proposed ban would hurt their business, managers predicted that most clients would be happy to have it off the menu.
‘'It's only the elderly who want it. When their grandkids get married they want the most expensive stuff, like an emperor," said Vincent Yu, a waiter at Grand Harmony Palace, where the soup sells for $30 to more than $100 a bowl, depending on whether the meat it contains is pure shark fin or mixed with shrimp or chicken.
Alluding to the tasteless nature of the fins, he added, "Guests offer me a bowl all the time, but I like won ton soup."
Grand Harmony and many other Chinatown banquet halls are already developing high-end substitutes for shark fin soup, using other kinds of fish, abalone or tofu.
There are dozens of large banquet halls in New York City, serving the equivalent of 1,000 fins each month, estimated Patrick Kwan, the New York director of the Humane Society of the United States, which has campaigned for a bill. He said the soup was not crucial to Chinese culture.
It is "nothing more than a status symbol — a ‘keeping up with the Joneses,'" he said.
Dr. Michael Hirschfield, chief scientist of the conservation group Oceana, said that adding New York to the list of states banning shark fins would have an outsize effect, potentially quashing the U.S. trade of fins once the West Coast bans take effect this year, because New York is the major East Coast importer.
Businesses in Chinatown are preparing for a shark fin phase-out. Nancy Ng, the manager at Po Wing Hong Food Market, said that when she saw that California had passed a ban last fall, she stopped ordering shark fins, reasoning that New York would probably follow its example.
Anyway, she said, the price went up about $50 a pound in the past six months for many of her store's fins, whose prices vary depending on size, color and quality.
‘'It's gotten so expensive," she said, "so there's much less of a market."