Fin in the News: Donnelly disappointed by Liberal stalling on shark finning bill

Holly Lake, iPolitics, Apr. 2, 2019

The sponsor of a bill that would ban the import and export of shark fins in Canada says he’s disappointed the federal government is looking to make amendments at the 11th hour when it’s had two years to bring them forward.

During second reading debate on Bill S-238, the Ban on Shark Fin Importation and Exportation Act, on Monday night, Sean Casey, parliamentary secretary to the minister of fisheries and oceans, told the House of Commons that while the government supports the bill, it may need amendments to avoid violating international trade agreements.

He said under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPRITTA), prohibiting the import and export of shark fins into Canada “may be problematic.”

As it’s written, the bill does not distinguish between sustainably harvested shark fins and products, and those that have come from finning.

“This would be inconsistent with Canada’s trade law obligations by posing a risk of violating non-discrimination obligations,” Casey said, noting the full ban on importation as proposed would likely raise issues with the World Trade Organization.

New Democrat MP Fin Donnelly, the bill’s sponsor, said he was surprised by Casey’s comments, given that the bill was introduced in April 2017 and was studied extensively by the Senate fisheries committee, which heard from a wide range of witnesses.

“I had hoped the government was ready to go. Given how little time there is left before the end of session, I’m very disappointed they’re talking amendments now,” Donnelly said.

He told the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon: “Canadians expect us to be part of the solution. (But) this is in typical ‘say one thing and do another’ Liberal fashion.”

This is not the first time the issue has been studied. Since 2011, five private member’s bills have been introduced in Canada that proposed banning the trade of fins, including one Donnelly introduced in 2013. It failed by just five votes but had the support of what was then the Liberal opposition.

“We’ve lost about a billion sharks or more in the time since,” he said, noting killing sharks for their fins has diminished the international shark population and driven dozens of species to near extinction.

“Every month and every year we delay, it’s causing the demise of a species we may not get back. Timing is critical here.”

Shark finning involves cutting off the fins of live sharks and throwing them back into the ocean, where they sink to the bottom, maimed and doomed to a horrible death of drowning, starving or being eaten alive.

This bill, which was introduced as a private member’s bill by Conservative Sen. Michael MacDonald in April 2017, received unanimous support at the Senate fisheries committee and was passed by the Senate in October 2018.

In addition to banning the import and export of products, it enshrines in law a ban on finning in Canada, which has been illegal here since 1994, by way of licensing conditions.

Despite the fact that finning is illegal here, imports have continued. In 2017, 170,000 kg of fins were imported into Canada — a 60 per cent increase over 2012 levels. 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.

New Democrat MP Richard Cannings said Monday night that Canada’s hand in the slaughter is increasing. Each year, 100 million sharks are killed to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup — and some estimates peg the number at twice as much.

“Can you imagine 100 million bears disappearing from our forests or 100 million lions disappearing from the plains of Africa,” he said. “It’s not just affecting sharks, it’s radically changing ocean ecosystems.”

An ecologist before entering politics, Cannings said he’s always been struck by humans’ casual disregard for the destruction of populations in oceans, lakes and rivers.

“We simply don’t seem to worry about things we can’t see. And because we can’t easily see what goes on beneath the surface of the ocean, we too often destroy populations before we’re aware of what we’ve really done.”

In the Senate, committee members heard that sharks are particularly vulnerable because they mature and reproduce more slowly than other species in the sea. It’s estimated they’re being caught 30 per cent faster than their rate of reproduction. That kind of pressure makes it very difficult for them to recover, and yet they are vital to maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems.

Donnelly noted that ocean health is a key priority in the mandate letters of both Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

Casey said despite his concerns, he’s convinced there’s an approach that will allow the government to honour its trade obligations and “above all, ensure that shark finning is ended.”

“Canadians have told us they are appalled by it and want to put an end to it. Bill S-238 aims to do that and it’s a good thing,” he said of the growing demand for federal intervention.

Casey added that the bill has a “tremendous amount of merit” and passing it “would indeed be an indication of Canada’s global leadership against this cruel practice.”

“As a Canadian and as a custodian of our natural environment, I feel a responsibility to prevent cruelty against animals and the destruction of any species … I believe it is our duty to do whatever is in our power to stop shark finning. I’m confident this is right thing to do.”

In their time in the House, Liberal members have also expressed strong support for the bill, and they continued to do so Monday night.

As for why Casey is talking about amendments at this stage when the bill is about to head to committee, Donnelly said, “That’s a very good question for the government.” Given how long the bill has been working its way through the parliamentary pipeline, including its lengthy study in the Senate, “they could have easily brought this up then.”

The bill has the backing of Rob Stewart’s parents, the Canadian documentary maker and shark advocate who brought the plight of sharks and the illegal fin trade to the world’s attention with his award-winning documentary Sharkwater.

A biologist and conservationist, Stewart was filming a followup movie called Sharkwater Extinction at the time of his death. It was released in theatres last fall.

“The documentary and its sequel are making a mark around the world,” Casey said.

“There is increased compassion and sympathy for the once-feared and misunderstood shark, a growing concern we’re slaughtering them to extinction and that governments aren’t doing nothing to stop it.”

Donnelly said more than a quarter of a million people have signed a petition calling for the bill to be passed.

“It’s not just Canadians, it is people around the world who are watching Canada. They want to see us, as an ocean nation, take the lead and be willing to do the right thing, and signal to the rest of the world that they should join in moving in the right direction.

“I hope that Canadians speak out at this time and let their MPs, this Liberal caucus and the prime minister know that this legislation has to be passed and that they have to show the political will,” he said.

“They agreed this is a critical issue and that finning is a deplorable practice. They promised to do the right thing — and it’s entirely possible to do it in the time we have to do it.”

iPolitics has requested comment from Casey.