Fish and chips should not escape the net

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2011, 12:00am


Anti-shark finning campaigns place most of the blame for dwindling shark populations on the never-ending hunger of China's growing middle class and Chinese communities abroad for shark's fin soup.

The newest addition to the global outcry is the state of California. On March 22, Proposition AB 376 passed the California Assembly committee on water, parks and wildlife. The bill proposes a blanket ban on the possession, sale, offer of sale, trade or distribution of shark fins. The bill has now passed the state's appropriations committee and has been approved to go to the assembly floor. If passed, it will become law.

As well as being perceived by some in the American Chinese community as an attack on their culture, this type of legislation is also based on the assumption that if shark finning were to stop, then so would the rapid decline of sharks. But is this case?

The international debate on the consumption of shark fins has transcended ecological arguments to what has been branded as an attack on Chinese culture. For anti-shark fin campaigners, the environmental repercussions of the extinction of the sea's apex predator far outweigh the continuation of a tradition of serving shark fin at banquets.

This sentiment is correct. However, in the spirit of fairness, other cultural delicacies that require the use of sharks that are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List for Endangered Species should also be targeted.

Fish and chips made from spiny dogfish is a perfect example. Much like shark's fin soup among the Chinese, fish and chips is considered part of the culture of England. It first became popular among the working class during the industrial revolution and in time became a culinary emblem of all British classes.

International legislation to protect spiny dogfish has been lacklustre to say the least. Even though the species has been listed as vulnerable since 2006, a proposal to upgrade their protection levels at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in Qatar last March was rejected. If approved, countries that export spiny dogfish would have had to prove that the shark came from a sustainable population.

The lack of action for spiny dogfish being used in fish and chips raises the question, why is it acceptable to utilise environmentally harmful fishing for certain cultural dishes but not for others?

This is the problem inherent with concentrating on a specific dish of a certain cultural group; it obscures environmentally damaging culinary practices carried out by other cultural groups. The fact that, according to the IUCN, the spiny dogfish population has decreased by 90 per cent in the northwest Atlantic is hidden behind the more sensational issue of sharks being hunted for their fins.