New York City lawmakers are sinking their teeth into a hot debate over shark fins.
Legislation proposed Tuesday would make it illegal to posses shark fins in New York state. Flushing Assemblywoman Grace Meng co-wrote the bill, saying sharks are rapidly disappearing as they're brutally slaughtered.
Shark fin is a traditional ingredient in Chinese cooking and right now, more than fifty restaurants in New York City serve up the controversial ingredient. It's typically found in shark fin soup, which can command anywhere from $35 and $100 per bowl.
"As a Chinese-American in New York, there are few symbols of greater wealth and prosperity than shark fin," said Meng. "That being said, just because something has been a tradition, it doesn't mean it's necessarily right."
More than 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins, according to Oceana, an international organization aimed at ocean protection. In international waters, shark fishers will often pull the animal on board and slice its fin while it's still alive before tossing it back into the ocean to drown. U.S. law prohibits finning at sea -- the shark must be brought back to port to be processed.
"It's an important part of culture, but it is something that is very cruel," said Meng.
All types of sharks are targeted, though some species, like whale sharks and hammerheads, are more valuable than others.
Shark fin soup is not an everyday ingredient in Chinese culture and is traditionally served by the wealthy. Though the dish isn't as popular among younger generations of Chinese-Americans, it is often a staple at functions like weddings.
"If there's no shark fin, they'll maybe have to pick another option, like watercress," said Melissa Chen who works at Jin Fong, a Chinatown banquet hall that serves several varieties of shark fin soup.
Chen said she didn't think her customers would be too disappointed if shark fin was no longer available and some other Chinese restaurants, like Bo Wing Hong, have already begun phasing the ingredient off their menus.
Nearly 14,000 pounds of shark fin valuing $685,747 was imported into New
York in 2011, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
If the legislation is approved, restaurant owners and other consumers
would have one year to use the shark fins they already have. After that,
possessing shark fins could lead to thousands of dollars in fines and
up to 15 days behind bars. California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington
have already enacted similar legislation.
Could a shark fin ban translate to elite popularity?
Sometimes a publicized controversy over food, such as over foie gras and bluefin tuna, can actually boost its popularity among diners looking to savor a taste of something exotic or elite, one food expert says.
Conrad Saam, vice president of marketing for Urbanspoon, cited Chef Ludo Lefebvre, of LudoBites fame on the West Coast. An anti-foie gras protest outside his restaurant spurred a bevvy of foodies looking to sample the ingredient in question.
"This is a microcosm of what happens in the market," Saam told Metro. "Protests drive awareness which in turns drives demand."