Rejecting the Cultural Justification for Slaughter

Commentary by Paul Watson
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Well, it did not take long. It's getting to the point that being a conservationist automatically makes a person a racist. Now it appears it is racist to defend sharks. What is even more amazing is that some people consider it a form of "Western cultural imperialism" to criticize Disneyland in Hong Kong.

I've been called a racist for defending whales, seals, fish, elephants, and trees, and for speaking out about human over-population. So, I guess it is not surprising to now be called a racist for defending sharks.

Let me see, for defending whales, we are anti-Japanese, anti-Norwegian, anti-Icelandic, and anti-Native American. For defending seals, we are anti-Canadian, anti-Norwegian, anti-Russian, and anti-Namibian. For defending trees, we are anti-Hispanic and anti Native American, oh yes, and anti-working class. It appears that loggers who make four times the average income of an environmental activist are working-class and the lower-paid activists are viewed as wealthy. You see, when you work without pay because you feel that the entire future of the planet is at stake, this is viewed as a luxury. In other words, environmental activists have the luxury of sleeping in trees and not owning a home, a car, or recreational vehicles.

Anyways, back to being a racist for saving sharks.

I was sent a response from a man named Hsing Lee who believes that the entire campaign to stop people from eating shark fin soup is motivated by anti-Chinese passions.

I guess that's why we are opposing Disneyland. Lee apparently believes that it is part of the traditional Chinese culture for Chinese couples to have Disney character fantasy weddings where traditional shark fin soup is served.

Never mind that Disneyland has now become a Mousewich for sharks and that a hundred million of them are being cruelly slaughtered to provide trinkets, and expensive, tasteless, status symbol bowls of soup. A hundred million sentient creatures a year massacred for non-nutritive purposes, slaughtered for vanity, and justified by culture.

It's a holocaust for sharks including those killed for the Mouse-shirted eco-fascists at Disneyland Hong Kong, but Lee is blind to the plight of the sharks, and most likely, he is as apathetic about the health of the oceans as well.

This is his protest:

You have some Western prejudice in play here on your part.

The medicinal properties of sharks fin soup are well known, and it's been used as food and medicine for thousands of years.  It's as traditional a dish as steak and potatoes. Would you prefer that we Chinese give up our culture and identity and conform to Western diet, medicine, and language?  It's not Chinese medicine that brought the world Heroin or Vicodin or Oxycontin or Vioxxx, all of which are infinitely worse for people than a shark's fin.  And I can testify first hand to the medicinal qualities of shark's fin soup. It really does make you stronger, more virile, and gives you a more adaptable immune system.  You fight off sickness faster when you drink it.  And unlike Westerners and their whale killing for ambergris, we Chinese actually put the rest of the shark on people's dinner tables.  We even use the highly elastic bone and tendon.  There is no wastage unless the shark is one of a handful of breeds that can be toxic.

The tone of this entire article [referring to the article in the Herald Tribune and the New York Times] is ignorant, racist, and just more China and Chinese bashing by a bunch of fucking Nazi crackers who think only Western ways are good or proper and everyone else is immoral.

Hsing Lee makes quite a few factual errors in his protest. It was China that actually introduced opium to the West and heroin is an extract of opium. There are no Western whalers hunting whales for Ambergris which comes only from the sperm whale and the only nation hunting sperm whales is Japan. There is no scientific validity to the claims that shark fin is a health benefit. It is not true that the Chinese use all parts of the shark. Ninety percent of shark fins come from sharks where the body has been wastefully discarded. Shark fin is not as traditional a dish in China as steak and potatoes is for Westerners for the simple reason that the cost of between $100 and $400 per bowl makes it a restricted dish available only to the wealthy.

I sent the following reply to Hsing Lee:

To Hsing Lee,

I don't fall for the racist guilt crap.

The fact is that sharks are being seriously diminished and a major reason for it is the Asian demand for shark fin soup. My opposition to shark finning has nothing to do with any prejudice towards Chinese culture. On the contrary, my one child is half Chinese and I have quite a few Chinese in-laws, all of whom are opposed to shark fin soup, by the way.

Anthony Marr, is a Vancouver Chinese activist, originally from China and a dedicated activist against shark finning.

There is not a shred of scientific evidence to demonstrate any medicinal benefits of shark fins or shark cartilage. I have interviewed reputable Chinese medical practioneers who have told me that there is no validity to these claims.

And even if there were valid claims, the destruction of the world's sharks is not worth the benefits.

No one is asking the Chinese to give up their culture. We are asking people to be ecologically responsible and sensitive to the fact that shark species have been diminished in all species from 60% up to 95%. Basking sharks, tiger sharks, white sharks, and whale sharks have been especially hit.

Last year, I found 100 plus silky sharks entangled and dead in a net that was caught on the rocks a hundred feet down, off the World Heritage Site of Malpelo Island, Colombia. What right do the Hong Kong Shark Fin merchants have to rob Colombia of its natural treasures?

Every year, I haul hundreds of miles of illegally-set long lines from the oceans and intercept poachers with cargos of shark fins.

What right does Hong Kong have to plunder the world's oceans for the benefit of so-called Chinese culture? The answer is they have no right at all.

Have we descended so low that we are now using culture to defend the extermination of species? Has it come to this that defenders of endangered species and protectors of oceanic ecosystems are to be called racist for practicing, promoting, and enforcing conservation?

Your accusation that Westerners are killing whales for Ambergris is way out of date. Whales have not been killed for Ambergris for over a century, and the only commercial whale killers in the world today are the Japanese, the Norwegians, and the Icelanders, and we oppose them all regardless of their race or culture.

You have the audacity to say there is no wastage when it is a fact that only 4% of a shark's body is utilized by the shark fin industry and the rest is thrown away.

Just last week, a San Diego court found a Hong Kong company guilty of possessing nearly 70,000 pounds of shark fins without utilizing the remaining 96% of the bodies. This represents between 18,000 and 22,000 sharks.

It is a fact that over 100 million sharks are being slaughtered each year and a great majority of this slaughter is to provide shark fins for tasteless, non-nutritive, expensive, superstitious soup meant to impress family and friends as a status symbol.

It is your  remarks which are ignorant and racist. The fact is that there are many Chinese who are speaking out against shark finning. We have Chinese celebrities like Michele Yeoh and Jackie Chan who have spoken out against it. We have Chinese volunteers working on stopping the consumption of shark fins. You are using race to cover up your support for a product which is causing incredible ecological damage to oceanic eco-systems. You are hiding behind race because you do not have the facts to back up your ridiculous belief that shark fin soup is a benefit to health.

In doing so, you also expose your own racism by labeling any person who is opposed to the massive slaughter of sharks as a Nazi. Talk about unoriginal name calling.

I have always found it despicable for people to use their race, their sex, or their culture to cover up crimes. The slaughter of sharks is a crime against nature and it is a crime under international and national laws.

I find the Chinese to be no better or no worse than every other mis-guided, anthropocentric, nature-abusing hominids anywhere. We are all on the same spaceship, Hsing.

As far as I am concerned, there is only one race and that is the human race, and ecologically speaking the entire race is predominantly ignorant, destructive, and suicidal.

The campaign against shark finning has nothing to do with race and culture and everything to do with the conservation of important species that fulfill valuable niches within oceanic ecological systems.

Captain Paul Watson

I also received an e-mail from a man named Eugene Ahn in response to one of my quotes in the New York Times.

Eugene wrote:

"They say it's cultural. Does that mean Disneyland in Japan is now going to be having whale burgers?" asked Paul Watson, the founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, in Friday Harbor, Wash.

This is the lamest and laziest attempt at supporting the cause against shark hunting I've ever heard.  Have the Japanese been eating whale burgers for hundreds of years?  Have they even been eating burgers for hundreds of years?  Your cultural ignorance is bewildering.

Next time, please make sense.

Eugene Ahn

My answer to Eugene was:

My reference to whale burgers marries the idea of a Western company like Disney incorporating local cultural for profit. I find it amazing that saving sharks is viewed by some as "cultural imperialism" yet Disney character fantasy marriages, and the entire Disney Americanization of local culture is embraced.

The Japanese, in fact, say they have been eating whale meat for hundreds of years. My cultural ignorance may be bewildering, but your ecological ignorance is despicable and as far as I am concerned ecology trumps culture any day.

Paul Watson

There may be many who disagree with me but the rights of a species to survive on this planet take absolute precedence over the "rights" of a cultural practice or tradition by groups of humans.

The Chinese may very well have eaten shark fin for centuries, but there are now more Chinese people than there are sharks in the sea and we are killing them at a rate of a hundred million a year.

The Chinese tradition of binding the feet of women has been abandoned because the rights of women take precedence over the tradition of foot-binding.

And the rights of the sharks to survive and to not be subjected to the cruelty of finning must take precedence over the tradition of eating shark fin soup.

The criticism that opposition to the consumption of sharks is Western imperialism and ethnocentric is ridiculous. We oppose the Canadian seal hunt and I am a Canadian. We oppose whaling, sealing, and illegal fishing by any people regardless of race, culture, or religious beliefs. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is 100% colour blind when it comes to these issues and criticism to the contrary is based on selective discrimination of our campaigns. We probably have a campaign to offend anyone and everyone at some time.

But the offense works both ways. From the point of view of a shark, the violation is extremist and violent, and the perpetrators (those who slaughter and consume the shark) have displayed an arrogant insensitivity to their welfare and survival both as individual sentient creatures and as species.

Can wholesale slaughter and extinction be justified by the cultural desire to eat a bowl of soup?

Is my respect for and concern for the survival of sharks worthy of less respect than a person who desires to harm them?

I have swam with sharks, with hammerheads, silkys, Galapagos, whitetip, blacktip, nurse, blue, thresher, whale, basking, dogfish, giant mantas, tigers, makos, and great whites. I found them to be creatures of grace and beauty. The thrill of seeing them in the wild, of swimming with them, is a far more stimulating and exciting experience than slurping down their boiled fins in a broth at some wedding banquet.

What many people do not see is that our violent invasion of the oceans is a form of imperialism. It is hominid imperialism and the culture of the sharks is being torn apart as these incredible animals are massacred for vanity purposes.

The shark is an essential species in maintaining the health of oceanic ecosystems, and especially, of ocean reef communities.

Should we accept the diminishment of the health of the oceans for a bowl of soup and justify it because it is a "cultural" dish?

I think not.