With Toronto's Support, Canada Moves Closer To a National Shark Fin Ban
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With Toronto’s Support, Canada Moves Closer To a National Shark Fin Ban

“If we allow sharks to disappear from our oceans, the balance will be gone and our oceans will die, and if our oceans die, mankind goes with it."

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Photo by Zach Ruiter

Shark finning reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine advocates eating only the muffin’s top. She says, “You gotta make the whole muffin—then you pop the top, toss the stump.”

To put it bluntly, shark fining is the practice of cutting off a shark’s dorsal fin, and then discarding the alive and suffering shark back into the water to die a painful death, just so humans can eat shark fin soup.

On April 27, Toronto City Council passed a motion expressing support for federal government Bill S-238, the Ban on Shark Fin Importation Act. The motion passed 38 to 4, with councillors Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39. Scarborough-Agincourt), Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough-Agincourt), Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), and Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre) voting against.

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According to Bill S-238, Canadians want to stop shark finning while “ensuring the responsible conservation, management, and exploitation of sharks.”

If the proposed ban were about muffins, it would criminalize removing muffin tops from their stumps. But when it comes to sharks, the legislation seeks to prohibit the importation of “shark fins that are not attached to the shark carcass.”

Shark finning has been illegal in Canada since 1994, but importing fins from other regions without such regulations has been allowed.

Shark fin consumption is a Chinese cultural tradition. Shark fin soup is a dish, sometimes served at weddings and special occasions as a status symbol. “We no longer bind women’s feet in Chinese culture. We also don’t have multiple wives. This is not what is Chinese culture today,” said councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale).

Wong-Tam also notes that in 2013, the Government of China eliminated the serving of shark fin soups at official state functions.

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Shark advocate and filmmaker Rob Stewart. Photo via Sharkwater

The proposed legislation is the third attempt at a national ban in Canada, Wong-Tam said. She described the bill as a principled position on ocean conservation and an effort to prevent extinction to many shark species.

Wong-Tam said she would support an amendment to the bill extending the ban to the killing of sharks entirely, but added, “in order to pass legislation, realistically, I think we cannot be so idealistic thinking we can do everything in one fell swoop.”

The family of Toronto filmmaker and shark advocate Rob Stewart joined councillors Wong-Tam and Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), as well as Beaches East York MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, in support of the shark fin ban at a press conference before council held their vote.

Stewart died while diving off the coast of Florida in January. The 37-year-old activist was filming a sequel to his 2006 documentary, Sharkwaterabout the rapidly declining shark population. The sequel will be called Sharkwater: Extinction.

His father Brian shares his son’s passion for the protection of sharks and the environment.

“If we allow sharks to disappear from our oceans, the balance will be gone and our oceans will die, and if our oceans die mankind goes with it,” Brian said. His grim prognosis is supported by scientific studies that warn ocean life is so critically endangered that all salt-water fish species could be extinct by 2048.

Joanne Hui established the Ethical Chinese Consumers Alliance to bring together members of the Chinese community that support a shark fin ban. “I grew up eating shark fin soup not knowing the consequences and I saw the documentary Sharkwater and it changed my life,” she said.

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Brian Stewart. Photo by Zach Ruiter

Each year, upwards of 73 million sharks are killed for their fins. Canada represents approximately two per cent of that market share. But over-fishing is not the only driver of species extinction, so is climate change and pollution.

Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all forms of transportation combined and is a leading cause of ocean acidification and ocean dead zones.

The struggle to ban shark fins has been arduous and slow over the past six years since councillors De Baeremaeker and Wong-Tam first put forward a motion to ban shark fins in Toronto in 2011. Although the motion was successful, it was nullified by Ontario’s Superior Court, which ruled in 2012 that the City had no jurisdiction to implement the ban.

In 2013, NDP MP Fin Donnelly proposed a federal ban that was narrowly defeated. The current effort to ban shark fining through Bill S-238 was introduced this month by Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald.

For Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who describes himself as a “vegan legislator,” the bill to ban shark fining “is about improving animal protections fundamentally.”

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MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. Photo by Zach Ruiter

Although it was defeated, Erskine’s proposed legislation last year, the Modernizing Animal Protections Act, would have implemented a ban on the import of shark fins, the sale of cat and dog fur in Canada, and it also attempted to amend the Criminal Code to further protect animals from abuse, gross negligence, fighting rings, and bestiality.

According to Erskine, there were groups concerned that the bill was the “thin edge of the wedge, and they were worried about what’s next in terms of restricting further animal use.”

At the 2016 Toronto Vegfest, Jonathan Balcombe, author of What A Fish Knows, called sharks sentient beings who experience pain, can recognize individual humans, and have memory.

Balcome explained that when divers attempt to assist a shark with a hook caught in their jaws the divers can first massage a shark into a near catatonic state so they can easily remove the hook without upsetting the shark.