There is quite a showdown brewing regarding Hawaii's shark fin ban legislation, SB 2169, which I commented on last week. It's been through its ups and downs but has moved forward to the next step: a legislative committee which will determine this week whether the bill be brought to a vote in this session or die on the floor and have to be re-introduced all over again in the next session. As a shark conservation advocate, I favor the legislation but I am realistic in recognizing the strength of the forces that oppose it.
Money and Political Influence
In March, at the CITES conference, the political forces that were supported by Asian (particularly Japanese) commercial interests succeeded in thwarting all proposals for increased protection for seven shark species. Conservation organizations made impassioned pleas for protecting these species but, in the end, the commercial fisheries and their political influence won out.
Hawaii has the potential of being a repeat of CITES if certain politicians, who apparently have strong commercial fisheries support, get their way. One politician, Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, has been singled out by some people as opposing the legislation and having ties to the commercial shark fishing industry. In some blogs, he has become the poster boy of the opposition and been subject to strong vitriol from some shark advocates. Whether that is productive or not is questionable. If Rep. Karamatsu is influenced or supported by lucrative commercial shark fishing interests, I suspect then that his position will not change and the best strategy would be to support the proponents of the legislation and nudge those who are fence-sitting, thereby limiting his influence on their vote.
Proponents of the legislation have been making their case with the media and soliciting support from major NGOs and even a celebrity or two. For the most part, the ecological arguments are pretty solid and have been repeated many times in this blog: tens of millions of sharks are being killed each year for the fins only; scientists are reporting definitive and severe drops in the populations of many shark species; sharks play a critical role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem as hunters and scavengers; because of ocean pollution, shark fins and other shark products contain high levels of mercury; while shark fin soup is considered an expensive luxury item, its demand has increased with the growth of a wealthier middle and upper class in many Asian countries; the shark fin provides little if any nutritional value in soup, and its homeopathic qualities have never been scientifically proven.
And yet it persists. Why? Money, plan and simple. The shark finning industry is an incredibly lucrative one. And with that money comes significant powers of influence.
Hawaii has an interesting mix of cultures, two primarily. There is the culture of the native Hawaiians. Within that traditional culture, the shark is held with great reverence. To harm the shark is an insult to that near-sacred position. Proponents have been tapping into those beliefs to rally citizens and politicians alike of Hawaiian descent.
Then there is the Asian culture that has grown in the islands over many decades, many of Chinese descent. And within that culture there is an attitude brought from their ancestral homeland that runs counter to the mindset of many ocean conservationists: fish is food and food is survival.
This was brought to my attention at a shark conservation discussion panel I moderated and participated in at last year's BLUE Ocean Film Festival. On the panel was Dr. Greg Stone of Conservancy International. He related a discussion he had with a leading Japanese fisheries management official. The official said (and I am paraphrasing from memory) that one of the main differences between Asian and western attitudes regarding marine sealife is that "We don't play with our food." A bit caustic, but the point was that we (meaning westerners) sometimes personalize - and in some cases humanize - our relationship with sealife, whereas for many Asian cultures it's just food; it's a matter of survival.
Now this is not a totally pervasive attitude and is prone to generalization. And whenever one discusses cultural differences, it is a delicate ice of political correctness that one is skating on. However, it certainly is a component of the situation taking place in Hawaii. If shark finning is perceived as cruel (the animal is finned and often thrown overboard, left to drown), then what about the cruelty imposed on poultry or cattle? Are we not treating those animals as simply a food source? Well, that can be another debate in itself, but suffice to say that, yes, cattle and poultry are food. However, they are raised to be food and we utilize as much of the animal as possible. Whereas, shark fishing is not based on farm-raised animals (not feasible with sharks) and it is not an efficient utilization of the animal. We are pulling these animals from the wild and the marine ecosystem suffers for it.
What You Can Do
There's a lot that is in play with the proposed SB 2169: conservation, morality, political influence, economics, and cultural heritage - all working with or against each other. So, what can you do, particularly if you are not an islander? Well, the pen can be mightier than the sword. And what better time to voice your position during this week: I have read that the legislative committee will make its vote this Thursday, Earth Day 2010.
If you wish to make a brief but thoughtful and respectful statement regarding support for SB 2169, do it now. Here are a couple of key email addresses:
The entire Hawaiian House of Representatives:
Sen. Clayton Hee (proponent who introduced the bill):
Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu (opponent):
Also, here's some interesting articles to provide you with more background info:
Honolulu Advertiser - Senator pushing to get vote on shark fin ban
KHON2.com - Shark Fin Ban Uncertain
Pete Thomas' Blog - Support for Hawaii shark fin ban grows, but will it be enough
SB 2169 - the text of the proposed legislation
Celebrate Earth Day and help Hawaii set the standard in shark conservation for others to follow: let your conviction be known!