Fin in the News: Rob Stewart's family calls for shark fin import ban on anniversary of his death

by: Holly Lake

It's been a year since Canadian documentary filmmaker and shark advocate Rob Stewart died while diving in the Florida Keys. In carrying on his work, his parents marked the first anniversary of his death by urging a Senate committee to support a ban on importing shark fins into Canada.

"It's been a year tomorrow," Brian Stewart said last night. "It's been a tough year. But we vowed that Rob's mission would continue, and we have spent the entire last year, 24-7, without a break, making sure (his latest) movie could be finished and that we would bring a team together to keep the mission alive. Rob had one mission in life: to save the oceans."

biologist and conservationist, Rob was filming a follow-up movie to his 2006 documentary Sharkwater, called Sharkwater Extinction, at the time of his death.

His first film won more than 40 awards at film festivals around the world and brought awareness to the horrible practice of shark finning. It highlighted how despite surviving the earth's five mass extinctions, sharks could easily be wiped out within a few years due to human greed. The film started a global conversation and some shark research organizations have credited it with saving millions of sharks worldwide, his mother Sandra said.

"He spent much of his life trying to save sharks," she told the committee. "(Sharkwater) changed people's perceptions of sharks. They weren't the scary monsters in Jaws."

"Today this is widely known. You regularly see people diving and swimming with sharks. They're majestic creatures that are vital to our ecosystem. And now all major conservation groups have silos that work with saving sharks, Oceana, WildAid, humane societies and WWF."

The Senate's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans is studying Bill S-238, known as the Ban on Shark Fin Importation Act, which would make the importation of shark fins not attached to a carcass illegal.

Canada has banned the practice of shark finning since 1994. However, fins can still be imported - and demand for them has been rising. Last year, 170,000 kg of fins were imported into Canada - a 60 per cent increase over the last five years. The majority came from Hong Kong and China, and were likely sourced from finning.

Outside of East Asia, Canada is the largest importer of fins in the world.

Recently, the University of Guelph conducted DNA testing on shark fins being sold in Vancouver to determine what species they were. Of the 59 shark fin samples that were collected, 76 per cent were from shark species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of vulnerable species.

"As the second leading importer of shark fin in the world, we have the power to make a statement to the world stage and say it's wrong," Brian said. "This is what we have to step up and do. We have to set an example. We have to say that it's wrong. It's morally wrong to wipe out a species."

But it's not just sharks that warrant concern. As apex predators, sharks keep the ocean ecosystem in check. Without them, fish populations underneath them explode, throwing off a critical balance. Sharks also remove the weak and the sick from the ecosystem, while promoting the health of coral reefs by preying on invasive species and providing nutrients with their waste. Given that 60 to 70 per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean, keeping them healthy is a necessity. Everything on land depends on life in the ocean for its own survival. And yet, in the last 50 years, the populations of some species of sharks have declined more than 80 per cent.

"Some scientists believe that the rapid decline of sharks we're witnessing now could result in the complete rearrangement of entire marine ecosystems," Kim Elmslie, campaign director with Oceana Canada, told senators.

Brian Stewart said that if pandas or elephants go extinct, man would not cease to exist. But the same is not true of sharks.

"If the last shark goes down, the balance in the ocean goes and we go down with it."

He continued: "This is not about us. We're the generation that screwed it up. We didn't notice. We were too busy consuming things. We were too busy with our lives. Now it has been brought to our attention. Now we have an obligation to do something."

Although many countries have banned shark finning, particularly in the wake of their son's film, Sandra said the problem is that importation is still legal.

"You can fin as many sharks as you want, and as long as you bring them into a country on a shipping boat, not a fishing boat, you're okay. It leaves a giant loophole in the laws."

The committee also heard from Kristyn Wong-Tam, the Toronto city councillor who proposed a ban on shark fins that was passed in and later overturned in court in 2012. She echoed the calls for senators to support a ban on importation, as it would level the playing field across the country. Currently, 17 municipalities have banned the sale of shark fin products. She said Toronto city council adopted a motion last April calling on the federal government to pass Bill S-238. Montreal city Council did the same last week, calling for a national shark fin ban.

While a revised Toronto bylaw remains an option, the preference is to do away with the patchwork approach.

"Municipal governments and Canadians from coast-to-coast are looking to Ottawa to take action and leadership on this issue and bring in a national shark fin ban once and for all. There is simply no political or environmental downside in implementing a national shark fin ban," Wong-Tam said. "Senators, it is time to act. Please do not let us down."

Shark advocate Joanna Hui told senators she was born in Hong Kong and grew up eating shark fin soup.

"When I saw the documentary Sharkwater, I was shocked. I had no idea that this little bowl of soup was causing so much devastation to our oceans. I stopped eating shark fin soup right away and I became a shark advocate."

She worked alongside Wong-Tam to push for a ban in Toronto.

"I am here to assure you that a federal shark fin import ban is the best thing that Canada can do for sharks and that it is absolutely not an affront to the Chinese community. I know this because the shark movement is being championed by Chinese leaders around the world. No one can say shark fin soup is part of Chinese tradition anymore."

That was echoed by Iris Ho, a wildlife program manager with the Humane Society International, based in Beijing. She's worked alongside Asian-Americans in getting bans in place in Hawaii, California and New York, and said this global movement is being led by Asian animal protection groups.

As several senators already have, she too called for the bill to be amended to include a ban on all products with processed shark fins as well, which will close a huge loophole.

"This is really an opportunity for Canada to become the first large industrialized country to ban the import of shark fins, in keeping with Canada's commitment to preserve our oceans," Ho said.

"This bill matters, not only to supporters in Canada, but to the many advocates I work closely with every day far away in Asia who continue to do all they can to protect our oceans and to drive behaviour changes in their communities for the better for sharks and our oceans. They count on your support, and I do as well."

This is the third attempt to ban the importation of fins into this country. The most recent was in 2013, when NDP MP Fin Donnelly proposed a federal ban on the importation of shark fins. His bill was narrowly defeated 143 to 138, but was supported by both the NDP and Liberals. He's supporting Bill S-238 and says in the years since, awareness has grown around the issue, including among MPs and senators.

"I don't want to make you feel guilty, but since 2012, 500 million more sharks have been killed," Brian told senators. "We could have set an example then. So please set an example now."

He noted that when his son's final movie is released this fall, he'd love to be able to include that the Senate passed the importation ban on shark fins in Canada.

"Rob was a proud Canadian. He wore it on his sleeve. He wore it around the world. He died doing what he wanted to do, and he died doing what he thought he had to do," Brian said. "We just want to continue that mission."

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