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Sen. Yee Harpoons Shark Fin Bill

The mayoral candidate backs Chinese cultural practices over environmental goals to protect sharks from destructive harvesting

In the debate over the sale of shark fin, what is a Chinese-American candidate for mayor of famously environmentally conscious San Francisco to do?

On Monday, Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) sided firmly with Chinese-Americans against environmentalists in an escalating debate about the controversial ingredient.

Shark fin soup is a cultural delicacy normally enjoyed banquet-style on special occasions. But shark fins make environmentalists seethe with anger because of the cruel way in which they are often harvested.

Yee, who announced his mayoral candidacy last November, held a press conference Monday in San Francisco’s Chinatown to denounce new state legislation that would ban the sale of shark fin.

Yee has recently battled on behalf of Chinese-Americans to allow live animals to be imported into California for sale in markets and to allow noodles to be served at room temperature.

“It seems that there are more and more examples where individuals or groups of individuals are trying to limit our heritage and our culture,” Yee, flanked by supportive restaurateurs and chefs, told reporters before evoking memories of racism against Chinese-Americans.

“It was not so many years ago that, if you happened to be Chinese, you could not go to school outside of Chinatown,” Yee said.

One shark fin, shredded, provides enough meat for a 20-person banquet, restaurant industry members said during the press conference.

Yee criticized the legislation, introduced Monday by Bay Area assemblymen Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), as being overreaching and insensitive. He said it unfairly bans the sale of all fins, including those from sustainably harvested sharks.

Fishermen who only want the shark's fins cut them off and toss the animals back in the water, where they die. The practice is illegal in United States waters. The practice of finning is blamed by environmental groups, including Pacific Environment, for a dramatic decline in population numbers. Marine ecosystems can be thrown out of balance when the top predators disappear.

The new legislation would not regulate the sale of any other parts of sharks' bodies.

“Costco sells shark meat. So those sharks that come in – what are you going to do with that fin?” Yee said.

Yee denied that he was taking an anti-environmentalist stance, pointing to high grades given to him by environmental groups for his legislative voting record.

But Yee’s recent political priorities suggest that he is courting an increasingly powerful Chinese electorate in San Francisco, which helped install bureaucrat Ed Lee as mayor and Jane Kim as District 6 supervisor.

“Leland desperately needs Chinese votes for this election,” said David Latterman, a local political analyst and consultant.

Latterman said the shark-fin debate pits environmentalist values against traditional Chinese values. “He has got to make a choice, and his people told him to make this choice,” Latterman said.

Echoing comments from scores of environmental organizations that support the fin ban, legislation co-author Huffman said it is impossible for shark fins to be harvested sustainably.

“There is no such thing as sustainable,” Huffman said. “All of the evidence suggests that the very lucrative market for shark fin here in California is continuing to be the driver behind this very destructive practice worldwide.”

Huffman and Fong, who was born in China and identifies himself as Asian Pacific American, held their own press conference Monday that was attended by Chinese-American restaurateurs who support the legislation.

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