An imminent federal ban on the import of shark fins is reigniting a longstanding controversy that has been particularly contentious among conservation advocates, politicians, and shark-fin soup vendors in Vancouver.
One local restaurant owner is outraged at what he calls a political attack on a revered Chinese custom, while local advocates are praising the senator who introduced legislation for a ban, saying it is long overdue.
“We’re beyond this barbaric cruelty,” said Kerry Jang, a former Vancouver city councillor and current psychiatry professor at the University of B.C. The shark-fin trade “is not appropriate in these days and times.”
Meanwhile, David Chung, owner of The Jade Seafood Restaurant in Richmond B.C., is resentful of the discourse surrounding the shark-fin trade.
The ban “is nonsense to me,” said Chung.
Federal politicians have been reluctant to do anything about the shark-fin issue for more than two decades. But Sen. Michael MacDonald of Nova Scotia is working to change this.
In 2017, MacDonald introduced Bill S-238, which will prohibit the import and export of detached shark fins and shark–fin derivatives. According to a report on global markets for shark products, Canada is the second-largest importer of shark fins outside of Asia. Canada banned the practice of shark finning — removing a shark’s fin and disposing of the carcass at sea — in 1994, but over 180,000 kilograms of detached shark fins still enter the country annually.
“The overwhelming majority of these fins are coming from sharks that are endangered or threatened,” said MacDonald.
On Oct. 23, the bill banning the import of shark fins passed unanimously in the Senate and is now under review in the House of Commons. MacDonald hopes to see the bill passed by early spring 2019 at the latest.
Pending ban on shark-fin imports receives pushback
While MacDonald is relieved to see a ban on shark-fin imports emerge on the federal agenda, Chung is tired of defending his business operations from activists and politicians.
Chung has been a spokesperson on behalf of Chinese restaurants in B.C. regarding the shark fin controversy in the past decade.
“We keep [shark-fin soup] on the menu because people want it,” said Chung. “We should not be bullied by people or activists for having our Chinese tradition.”
Shark-fin soup is a sign of status among Chinese communities that has persisted for over a thousand years. As a part of Chinese tradition, it is commonly served at Chinese weddings and restaurants.
Chung declares that the shark-fin soup controversy has become a political battle rather than a conservation matter.
But MacDonald maintains that the ban is designed to protect threatened shark species.
“[The ban on shark fin imports] is not a partisan issue, it’s a conservation measure,” said MacDonald.
Of the 500 shark species worldwide, approximately one quarter of them are classified as threatened.
Madeline Cashion, a recent graduate from the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at UBC, is skeptical that the ban will be successful in protecting these species.
She said that one problem with the proposed bill is that it doesn’t match the reality of how sharks are caught by poor, developing-world fishers.
“The [shark fishers] are catching whatever they can,” making it “really difficult to target certain species,” said Cashion. “It would be great if we only took fins from populations that could be fished at a sustainable level. That takes a lot of work.”
As a result, said Cashion, fishers who don’t have the capacity to figure out how to catch some species and not others will drive the whole business underground. She fears that an underground shark-fin trade could radically undermine the original goal of shark conservation.
Cashion said that it would be better to dedicate time and money to marine conservation organizations to protect sharks than to impose a federal fin import ban.
People in Vancouver have said they support a ban
Despite the pushback from Cashion and Chung, a 2013 study by Environics Research Group Ltd. showed that 83 per cent of respondents in Vancouver supported a federal ban on shark fin imports and exports.
In 2010, Jang introduced a council motion to call on the federal government to ban shark fins. Although his efforts failed to produce legislation, that hasn’t stopped him from “making a lot of noise” about the sale of shark fins, which he perceives as an environmental and moral issue.
In order to end the shark-fin trade, a ban on imports is common sense, said Daniel Pauly, a professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.
“It is sad that it has taken so long to do something as obvious as [Bill S-238],” said Pauly.
MacDonald said that banning shark–finning practices while enabling the “unbelievably cruel” product to be imported into the country is a loophole in the system.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said MacDonald. “We have a responsibility to protect these species and [Bill S-238] is a big step in the right direction.”