Shark Fin Bans Lack Bite

Misguided state laws threaten to ban the sale or possession of shark fins. Fishermen, chefs, and diners will suffer the consequences.


Earlier this month, a Maryland bill that would have banned the possession or sale of shark fins gathered steam before eventually dying in the state's House of Delegates. The bill failed despite support from pop singer Ke$ha, who was apparently happy to penalize the mostly Chinese-American chefs who serve shark fin soup and other delicacies made with shark fins. (This is the same Ke$sha who recently urinated in a California street, an act she photographed and posted online with a challenge to the "PoPo" to track her down.)

Ke$ha's approbation aside, the proposed Maryland ban—like others already in place in states like California and Hawaii—was a bad idea. It's not that sharks don't deserve some measure of protection, it's that the state laws go much too far.

The Maryland ban seemed designed to appeal to the hearts—rather than the minds and certainly not the stomachs—of the state's residents. After all, Maryland hasn't had a single shark fin pass through the Port of Baltimore in years. (The Washington Post also notes that only two restaurants in the state—including Wong Gee in Silver Spring, where I sampled shark-fin soup and shark dumplings for the first time last week—are known to serve shark.)

If the Maryland bill seems a solution in search of a problem, then the more glaring concern with the Maryland bill and other state bans is that sharks in U.S. waters are already protected against the practice of "finning." The practice, as its name suggests, occurs after a shark is caught in the ocean, where fishermen cut off its edible fins and toss the rest of the dying shark back in the water.

The protection comes in the form of a federal ban outlawing the practice of finning in U.S. waters. President Barack Obama signed the bill last year (and recently dined at a San Francisco restaurant known for its shark fin soup).

But unlike the Maryland bill and other state bans, the federal ban doesn't ban the possession or sale of shark fins. It simply requires a fisherman who catches a shark to bring the whole carcass to shore.

Is the federal rule fair? I think so. A fisherman has no more right to litter the ocean with shark carcasses than a deer hunter has to foul the woods with her unclaimed kills.

The better rule for animals from shark to deer is that if you hunt and kill an animal in the wild, you're responsible for hauling out the whole animal (minus, perhaps, the guts).

And so the federal law is the rare food-related ban I can actually get behind. I'm not behind it simply because it reduces the indiscriminate slaughter of animals in a commons—though more than 70 million sharks are finned worldwide each year by some estimates. I support the federal law for that reason and because it reduces ocean waste while—and here's the key—still permitting the use of shark fin as food.

Though a payload of valuable fins is no doubt worth more at market than a comparable payload of shark carcasses, the latter still has a host of non-food uses.

When it comes to the debate over shark fishing, all of these economic and environmental concerns are noteworthy. But more important to me is the fact state bans likely conflict with the federal ban and may as a result be unconstitutional.

For example, California bans the possession of any shark fin. What this means in practice is that sharks caught in California waters and intended to be brought back to shore must first be de-finned—lest a fisherman be found in possession of a fin and fined. Here it's the fins, rather than the shark, that are presumably thrown back into the ocean.

But since federal law requires a fisherman to bring the whole intact shark back to shore, this reverse finning required under California law is in direct conflict with federal law. It's no surprise that a group of shark-fin sellers in California, working together as the Asian American Rights Committee of California, recently sued the state in hopes of overturning the ban.

Though the California lawsuit may deter other state efforts to ban the possession and sale of shark fins, the Post notes the Maryland bill may reappear next year. That would be unfortunate for Wong Gee and the few remaining sellers in the state, as well as for consumers—from Chinese-Americans to people like me who simply enjoy trying new and different foods.

Instead of sending the seafood PoPo after chefs, fishermen, and eaters, why not go after some real problems? Let me suggest that not only has public urination been an issue in Maryland in recent years, but it looks like Ke$sha may be gearing up for a tour.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.