Researchers led by Dirk Steinke at the University of Guelph found that 71 per cent of more than 100 samples tested belonged to species that are considered at risk of extinction, including the whale shark, the largest fish in the world. It has been listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union of Conservation since 2003.
Shark fins are traditionally made into soup that is served as an expensive delicacy — it can cost more than $100 per bowl — at Chinese banquets for special occasions such as weddings.
Manta and mobula ray gill rakers, thin filaments that the animals use to filter food from the water, are used in traditional Chinese medicine. According to the conservation group Manta Ray of Hope, they are promoted as a cure for ailments ranging from chickenpox to cancer in some Chinese communities.
Shark finning is also banned in some countries such as Canada because it involves removing the fin from a live shark and throwing the rest of the animal back in the water to die a slow death.
"We got curious for Canadians, especially in Vancouver," he said. He added that Canada is the largest importer of shark fins outside southeast Asia. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, Canada imported 140,750 kilograms of shark fins worth $3.08 million.
'They're not cheap'
"It took them awhile to get the money together because they're not cheap," Steinke said.
The samples were analyzed using a technique developed at the University of Guelph called DNA barcoding. The method allows individual species to be identified from small pieces of DNA.
The testing found 20 species of sharks and five species of rays. Of those species, 56 per cent are on the IUCN Red List as endangered or vulnerable, while 24 per cent are near threatened.
Trade, import bans
"However, the confirmed occurrence of these species' body parts in recent trade suggests ongoing market demands," the researchers wrote.
Steinke said that's "very frustrating, although not unexpected," given that rarer types of fins are worth more.
Even if someone is caught and fined occasionally, shark fins are so valuable that selling illegal species "might overall still pay off," Steinke said.
Steinke hopes the research will raise public awareness about the issue.
He also hopes it might encourage politicians to ban shark fins on a larger scale. Shark fins are banned in more than a dozen municipalities across the country, but a private member's bills pushing for a federal ban failed in 2013 and in 2016.
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The research was funded by the Government of Canada, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Save Our Seas Foundation and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.