Hill Times - NDP MP Donnelly Vows to Continue Fight to Ban Shark Fin Imports into Canada

By BEA VONGDOUANGCHANH | Published: Monday, 05/06/2013 12:00 am EDT

Sharks are thought to be 450 million years old, have lived through five mass extinctions, and are vital to our ecosystem, but 100 million of them are slaughtered annually for their fins—often while they are still alive and dropped back in the ocean—for what is an estimated $3-trillion-a-year global business. The House recently defeated a private member’s bill that would have banned the importation of shark fins, and despite a promise, the government still has not taken any action to strengthen such a ban nor has it introduced any new regulations to address the problem.

NDP MP Fin Donnelly (New Westminster-Coquitlam, B.C.), whose private member’s bill on banning the importation of shark fins was defeated in March, told The Hill Times last week that he will continue to push the issue, despite his bill’s defeat.

“I’m going to continue to push to make sure they do change the CFIA [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] regulations,” Mr. Donnelly said. “I guess I can consider it a partial victory but I was looking at a legislative change, not a regulatory change. I think that’s going to be the real challenge. I don’t know how much of a priority this is to make those regulatory changes, but I’m certainly going to be working as hard as I can to see them come in.”

Mr. Donnelley first introduced his private member’s bill, C-380, in the House on Dec. 8, 2011.

It would have banned the import of shark fins that are not attached to shark carcass, although a ministerial permit could authorize the import only if the minister believes that the fin supports scientific research for shark conservation and enhances shark survival in the wild.

It received debate earlier this year and was defeated on March 27 by five votes. Independent Conservative MP Peter Goldring (Edmonton East, Alta.), and Conservative MPs, James Rajotte (Edmonton-Leduc, Alta.), John Williamson (New Brunswick Southwest, N.B.) and Terence Young (Oakville, Ont.) voted in favour of the bill with NDP and Liberal MPs while the rest of the Conservative MPs and Cabinet ministers voted against for a final tally of 143 to 138.

During the second hour of debate on the bill, two days before the final vote, Conservative MP LaVar Payne (Medicine Hat, Alta.) told the House that the government would oppose the bill, but that it would be looking at options to address the issue.

“Specially, our government is exploring the option of adding additional conditions to arrangements that would require that shark fin imports be sourced from jurisdictions that, like Canada, ban the practice of shark-finning. That way, we would bolster our domestic ban on this abhorrent practice by putting more teeth into our important protocols,” he said. “The course of this action would both respect Canada’s international trade obligations and address the issue of shark-finning. Best of all, once all of the appropriate considerations had been addressed, the new import requirements would be implemented more quickly than a regulatory change.”

Mr. Donnelly said he hasn’t heard “a word” on what kind of progress the government is making on this front.

“I think they offered that because they were very nervous about the fact that I could win the vote and a few weeks prior to that, I had more commitment from Conservative MPs that they were going to support the vote. They were sensing that, so they offered this two days before the vote to try and pull some of their members back,” he said.

In an email, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which oversees the shark imports, said it is “expoloring options to see what can be done to prvent illegally harvested shark fins from entering Canada. Any such policy would respect Canada’s trade obligations under the WTO.”

The multi-trillion-dollar industry threatens shark populations as almost 75 per cent of shark fin products are taken from endangered shark species. The decline of shark species also affects marine and ocean ecosystems which then threaten a healthy environment. Scientists have estimated that if current trends continue, up to 20 shark species could become extinct by 2017. It’s why it’s critical to protect the sharks, Mr. Donnelly said, noting that a legislative regime would be more effective than a regulatory one.

“I’m not a fan of regulatory changes because enforcement is critical. And you can’t enforce it if you don’t have the proper tools. The best way to do it is through DNA testing, and there’s no way that the government is going to do DNA testing on all those products. They would do spot checks at best and even that would be very time consuming and slow and expensive,” he said. “Given the status of sharks in Canada, given how important sharks are to ocean ecosystem health, that’s why I think we need to have a legislative change and ban the importation of shark fins.”

Canada imports more than 100 tonnes of shark fin annually and is popular within Asian cultures for celebrations such as weddings.

NDP MP Hoang Mai (Brossard-La Prairie, Que.), in a speech in the House, said he grew up eating shark fin soup, but that doesn’t mean cultural perceptions can’t change. He noted that he is part of a new generation of Asian-Canadians who see the effects of shark-finning and choose to not consume it.

“The real problem is that sharks are often finned alive. Why are we doing this, just taking their fins? In my community, in the Chinese and Vietnamese community, it is important to treat guests well. At a wedding, for instance, guests are brought shark fin soup. The soup might taste really good, but it is not because of the shark fins but because of the pork broth or chicken broth, which gives it taste. Shark fin has no taste. It is a cartilage and it has no nutritional value. It is basically just a question of prestige,” Mr. Mai said, noting that it’s no longer necessary to serve it. “There is a difference between the value and the fact that they want the banquet to look good for others. It is not necessary to do that. Even the Chinese government has realized that. A lot of hotel chains have started banning shark fin soup. If we think about it, it is not really a matter of culture.”

Mr. Mai also mentioned that because sharks are apex predators, they contain a lot of mercury and so the rest of the shark is not used for human consumption. “I do not hear about a lot of people eating shark steak,” he said.

Fishing vessels often throw the sharks back into the water after taking their fins because the rest of the carcass is not valuable. The fins can fetch prices of between $200 and $400 per pound, whereas the rest of the shark is worth about $0.20 to $0.50 per pound. It’s not worth it for fishers to “land” the shark and use the entire shark, Mr. Donnelly said.

“This happens out in the open, whether it’s a big factory trawler that cut the fins off and shuck the carcasses back, or it’s a small little fishing vessel using long lines. They don’t have the space and it’s not worth it to haul these sharks back when all they’re getting is $0.20 a pound. You pay more in fuel just to haul it back,” Mr. Donnelly said. “However, the fins, and if you get one of these large great whites or a whale shark, some of these large sharks, you can get $10,000 for one of the fins. So there’s a huge incentive unfortunately to kill these sharks and just get their fins.”

There is a shark fishery on Canada’s West Coast that does land all its sharks and uses each part, to make products for export to Europe, China and the United States, including making animal food and fertilizer among others.

“They’re having a struggle making it economically viable, however, they’re doing the right thing and they’re using everything,” Mr. Donnelly said. “People accept that more than just cutting the fins off and letting the shark die, suffocate, essentially in the ocean. They’d rather see that shark utilized fully if it’s going to be killed.”

Mr. Donnelley noted, however, that there is still an issue with the number of sharks being killed and said there needs to be a sustainable shark fishery.

Conservative MPs said during debate, however, that the government already has rules and regulations in place and that Mr. Donnelly is trying to “reinvent the wheel” with his private member’s bill.

“Our Conservative government is committed to addressing the serious problem of shark-finning. We are taking action on a number of fronts to end this deplorable activity,” said Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, Ont.), Parliamentary secretary to the Agriculture minister, noting that there has been a ban on shark-finning in Canada since 1994. “The ban applies to Canadian waters and Canadian licensed vessels fishing outside our territorial waters. Canada is one of the first countries to implement a national plan of action for the conservation and management of sharks. Our government believes that working through regional fisheries management organizations, such as the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, to ensure strong management and enforcement practices globally, is the most effective way to prevent unsustainable practices such as finning.”

Further, Conservative MP Randy Kamp (Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission, B.C.) said that the government does a good job in enforcing the rules already in place and is efficiently monitoring the shark population. “The shark fishery in Canada is highly regulated, with rigorous dockside monitoring,” he said, noting that shark fins should correspond with the number of shark carcasses onboard any fishing vessel and that the number of fins cannot be more than five per cent of the weight of carcasses. “Both methods are intended to ensure that sharks are not being caught solely for their fins.”

Mr. Kamp said those rules are adequate to ensuring sustainable harvesting.

Mr. Donnelly said there needs to be a wider ban on imports, however, so that shark fins coming from other countries not subjected to Canadian rules and regulations are not being sold or consumed in Canada. “By adopting an import ban, Canada would be joining a worldwide conservation movement to protect sharks,” he said.

bvongdou@hilltimes.com

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