Fin in the News: Senator pitches ban on shark fin imports

by: Holly Lake - Ipolitics, Ontario


Sen. Michael MacDonald announced today that he plans to table a bill in the Upper Chamber this week to ban the importation of shark fins into Canada.

It's a move against what he called the "cruel and wasteful practice" of shark finning, which sees the fins of live sharks hacked off and the shark tossed back into the ocean, left to drown or bleed to death.

Although shark finning has been prohibited in Canada since 1994, shark fins can still be imported in Canada. MacDonald's bill proposes banning the importation of any fin that's not attached to the shark carcass, with some exceptions made for scientific research.

In 2015 alone, Canada imported more than 144,000 kilograms of shark fins - a 36 per cent increase since 2012. The majority of that is used in shark fin soup. Although fins add no flavour to the soup, they are considered a delicacy by some Asian cultures.

"It's estimated up to 73 million sharks are killed each year to satisfy global demand for the dish," MacDonald said at a press conference today, noting demand for the soup continues to grow.

Science has shown fins are neither nutritional nor medicinal. They are, however, high in methyl mercury.

Over the last 50 years, that appetite for fins has led some populations of sharks to decline by more than 80 per cent. Kim Elmslie, campaign manager with Oceana Canada, said sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they mature and reproduce more slowly than other species in the sea.

"They're being caught faster than they can reproduce," she said, adding it's estimated they're being caught 30 per cent faster than their rate of reproduction.

"It's very difficult for them to recover under this kind of pressure."

And yet, sharks are vital to maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems.

"A lack of sharks actually hurts commercial fisheries," she said, noting that, as apex predators, sharks keep other species in check. "We need them to keep our fisheries healthy."

In 2013, 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. Now he's supporting MacDonald's bill and says in the years since, awareness has grown around the issue, including among MPs and senators. He himself spent a year on a cross-country campaign to help foster that awareness.

"When anyone looks at how they're being killed, they're horrified. Their fins are cut off and they're left to suffocate and drown. It's a horrific death. It's a horrific fishing method and needs to be stopped," he said today.

"Right now is the time to deal with this issue. I think it's the right time to bring it through the upper house and reintroduce it to the lower house."

A 2013 poll by Environics poll that found 81 per cent of Canadians support banning imported fins. More than 90 countries worldwide have put restrictions on the possession, sale and trade of fins; 10 U.S. states have done so. Some Canadian cities also have banned shark fins.

MacDonald said a great deal of the credit for the growing awareness of the shark fin trade belongs to Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, whose 2006 award-winning documentary Sharkwater woke the world up to the effect it's having on sharks. Stewart died last month diving in the Florida Keys while shooting the sequel.

"I believe that it's our responsibility to carry the torch and ensure that finning products do not enter Canada," MacDonald said.

"This is not a political issue. I think having a Conservative senator from Nova Scotia sitting with an NDP MP from B.C. is a testament to that. It is a matter of fact that the global trade of shark fins is unsustainable and it is decimating a critical species of the marine ecosystem."

Because finning is expanding and largely unregulated, it's impossible to know if imported fins are from sharks landed whole or if they were finned, or if they were taken from a vulnerable species. That's why a ban on imports is the only effective approach, he said.

"This bill is the only way to ensure Canada does not support shark finning. (It would also) ensure Canada is taking a leading role in ending this bloody practice."

Afterwards, MacDonald said this is the kind of issue Tories should embrace.

"The root word of conservative is 'conserve'. I think there are a lot of these issues that Tories should naturally be supporting and this is one of them. I'm a very strong Conservative. I'm as Tory as anyone in Canada, but I think this is the type of issue Conservatives should be out front on," he said.

"As someone who grew up by the ocean, on the waterfront, you'd see a lot of sharks being brought in because people were catching them. But now they're pretty scarce on the East Coast."

Does he expect to find support among his colleagues in the Senate?

"Yes. Most people are reasonably and rational about things when they have the facts. When they see the evidence," he said.

"I believe this is the right thing to do and I'm prepared to fight for it."