This week we have a Special Guest Post by:
Articled Student at McQuarrie Hunter LLP
Have you ever had shark fin soup? I might have, years ago when I was a child. I cannot recall any details about the flavor or texture of this food. But what I do know is that Shark Fin Soup (“SFS”) is a status symbol for those who can afford this expensive delicacy, and it is particularly popular among Chinese people. Recently, animal activists have been trying their best to appeal to Richmond City Council to ban the importation, sale and consumption of SFS. The City Council is now considering the proposal. Among those who have already made change are Coquitlam, Port Moody, North Vancouver, Toronto (effective September 1st) and San Francisco.
Why all this pressure? Because there are people who catch sharks only to strip them of its fins and toss them back into the sea, where they wait for their inevitable deaths. According to National Geographic, 26 to 73 million sharks worldwide are harvested for their fins. The bleak futures these numbers reveal are, frankly, not very appetizing. Putting aside the issue of cruelty to animals, the rate of consumption is simply not sustainable. The sharks will be wiped out in no time.
In principle, I have no problems supporting a ban on SFS. But if that is all we would do, my worry is that it may actually aggravate the problem or create a divide in our city. Those engaged in the de-finning of sharks are motivated by profit. If the profit motivation is there, simply making the sale of SFS illegal will likely not make its popularity dissipate overnight. If there is consumer demand for SFS, illegalizing SFS could simply drive the importation, sale and consumption of SFS underground. Worse yet, the decreased availability of SFS may actually increase the market value of each serving—making each de-finning all the more profitable. Under appropriate conditions, the ban of SFS could ironically increase the endangerment of sharks and further spread the very practice that the law seeks to ban.
This means that any legal changes must go hand in hand with awareness and education of why we as a society are implementing those changes. Especially where the law clashes with cultural practices, we need the people’s support—or else it just feels like the government unnecessarily sticking their nose in our business—telling us what traditions we can and can’t practice. While the ultimate goal of a ban on SFS is to deter the practice of de-finning sharks, not everyone is supportive of a blanket ban. Given that a ban on SFS would impact Chinese cultural practices and traditions, it is not surprising that in cities where the ban is in place, some feel that they have been unfairly targeted and prejudiced. A case in point: the Chinatown Neighborhood Association of San Francisco stated that it might file a lawsuit to overturn the city’s ban on SFS because it believes that it violated laws that prohibit discrimination against ethnic groups and their unique cultural practices.
I think they are right in that a ban on SFS would likely disproportionately impact the Chinese community. Not every law affects all ethnic groups equally. Sometimes one set of laws may disproportionately impact one group of people, while another set of laws may have disproportionate impact on another group. For example, if there was an workplace rule that required every worker to wear pants for safety reasons in certain job positions, this would impact women more than men—it interferes with women’s ability to wear skirts, whereas men presumably would not be as greatly affected by this limitation. This differential impact does not necessarily make the law invalid or unjust—as long as it’s reasonable. Given the interests involved, a ban on SFS would be reasonable. And, we must also remember that our rights are not absolute. We don’t have a right to do whatever we want, whenever we want; however we want it. Again, it comes back to reasonable limits on what can do. We don’t allow underage children to drink alcohol. We don’t allow the individuals to use drugs. We don’t allow cruelty to animals to persist. These rules infringe on people’s rights, but we accept these limitations and compromises for a greater good. A ban on SFS is no different. We have to take some responsibility as consumers—we can’t always have our cake and eat it too
We live in a society where what we do (in Vancouver) has real consequences across the sea. The above examples (drinking, drug & animal abuse) are situations where we can see the negative consequences with our own eyes. However, with the problem of de-finning sharks, we don’t see the impact—which makes us wrongly think that there are no consequences—that there is no impact. How wrong we are. This is why awareness and education is so important. It shows us the consequences; it justifies our compromises (legal or otherwise); and it gives us long-lasting and meaningful change. I for one would like to spread the awareness, and open up the dialogue on this issue, which in the larger scheme of things is only one small (but important) part of our issues surrounding food and environmental sustainability. In the meantime, help spread the word. I would be surprised to find someone who would still go out of their way to find SFS after being told of the process employed to get that soup into their bowl.