After years of legal wrangling, Ottawa moves to ban imports of shark fins

With an estimated 90 per cent of the world's shark population depleted after decades of over-fishing, the federal Liberal government is poised to ban imports of shark fins into Canada.

'They aren't the scary monsters that people have seen in the movie Jaws,' shark advocate says

Shark fins are seen during their drying process at Kalibaru district in Jakarta, Indonesia. The federal Liberal government is backing a move to ban shark fin imports. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

With the global population of sharks now depleted by 90 per cent following decades of overfishing, the federal Liberal government is poised to ban the importation of shark fins into Canada.

Although shark finning in domestic waters was outlawed in 1994, Canada is the third-largest importer of shark fins outside of Asia. The top importers of shark fins globally are mainland China and Hong Kong, where shark fin soup is a popular delicacy among the wealthy.

In 2018 alone, Canada imported more than 148,000 kilograms of shark fins, a product worth more than $3.2 million, according to data compiled by Statistics Canada.

In 2017, Conservative Nova Scotia Sen. Michael MacDonald tabled a bill banning shark fins, S-238, to do away with these imports. That bill is still before the House of Commons.

But with less than three sitting weeks left before Parliament rises for summer, his private member's bill (known as a "Senate public bill" in the upper house) has only a slim chance of clearing the Commons.

Through its representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, the federal government has stepped in to amend an existing piece of legislation related to Canada's fisheries, Bill C-68. The amendment basically copies-and-pastes the language from MacDonald's bill into C-68, which is further along in the legislative process.

"Ending the trade in shark fins is an urgent matter and the government therefore has acted with resolve," Harder said.

Critics of shark finning — the practice of cutting off a shark's dorsal fin and dumping the rest of the animal back into the ocean to die — maintain it's an inhumane practice that kills tens of millions of sharks each year, just so their fins can be used to prepare soup. Last year, more than 73 million sharks were slaughtered, or left for dead on the ocean floor, as a result of finning.

Besides cruelty claims, scientists say the continued widespread killing of the apex predators will seriously disrupt ocean ecosystems and other fish populations.

Shark fin soup is a dish often served at important events like weddings, banquets and business meetings — to show respect to guests and to allow the hosts to demonstrate their personal wealth and affluence. It's a dish that can retail for up to $100 per serving at restaurants in places with large Chinese-Canadian communities, such as Markham, Ont., and Richmond, B.C.

Bill C-68, as amended, is expected to pass the Senate this week. The legislation will then be sent back to the Commons, where MPs will have to sign off on the Senate's shark fin additions. That's likely to happen before the end of this session with the government's support.

Some municipalities in Canada have sought to ban the delicacy following years of advocacy work by animal rights activists. Members of the Chinese business community successfully stopped Toronto's planned ban through legal action at Ontario's Superior Court.

A judge ruled in 2012 that such a ban was beyond the jurisdictional authority of a city, a move that forced other Ontario municipalities to reconsider cracking down on the dish.

In this Aug. 12, 2010 file photo, shark fin soup is served at a restaurant in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

Kristyn Wong-Tam, a Toronto city councillor and past president of the Toronto chapter of the Chinese-Canadian National Council, has become one of Toronto's most vocal advocates for a shark fin ban.

She told the Senate fisheries committee studying the legislation that human rights complaints from some Chinese restaurant owners are bogus, because they relate to potential lost profits, not human rights.

"There were zero grounds for a human rights complaint, as the entire Chinese community was not discriminated against by this [Toronto] bylaw," she said.

"As a case in point, not every Chinese person eats shark fin. I do not, and neither does my family. I did not serve shark fin soup at my wedding. Neither did my two siblings when they got married."

Other leaders of Chinese descent have been at the forefront of the global anti-finning movement.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam speaks in the council chamber at Toronto City Hall. Wong-Tam has been pushing for a shark fin ban. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

According to Joanna Hui, a Canadian-based shark advocate, the Hawaii shark fin ban was led by Sen. Clayton Hee; California's ban was championed by Sen. Paul Fong; and the Vancouver regional ban was led by city Coun. Kerry Jang. Basketball star Yao Ming also has become an anti-finning advocate in his native China.

Since 2011, five private member's bills that would ban shark fin imports have been introduced in Canada's Parliament. They all failed to pass.

"Over just these past eight years, nearly one billion sharks have been butchered and killed for their fins," said Julie MacInnes, wildlife campaign manager for Humane Society International/Canada.

"The sharks, and the ocean ecosystems that depend on them, do not have another election to wait. We are urging MPs to support S-238 and stop this destructive practice, once and for all."

'They aren't the scary monsters that people have seen in the movieJaws.They're majestic creatures that are vital to our ecosystem.'- Sandy Stewart

Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, the man behind the 2006 Sharkwater documentary, advocated for action by lawmakers on shark fin imports. He died tragically in 2017 after a diving accident while filming a sequel to his first documentary.

His parents, Brian and Sandy Stewart, have since taken up his cause and helped finish that second film after their son died.

"Rob spent much of his life trying to save sharks specifically, because of the barbaric nature of shark finning, how quickly we're decimating their populations, and the impact of removing an apex predator from ecosystems covering 70 per cent of the planet," said his mother, Sandy.

"They aren't the scary monsters that people have seen in the movie Jaws. They're majestic creatures that are vital to our ecosystem. Sharks are the framework for our oceans. Everything that is evolved in the oceans for the last 400 million years has had to deal with sharks as the top predators. If we take sharks out of the oceans, as the top predator, the populations of fish underneath them explode."

Beyond the shark fin ban, the government is amending Bill C-68 to include provisions that would see much of what was in another piece of animal rights legislation, the whale captivity bill — which has itself had a long and winding path through the parliamentary process — passed into law by month's end.

"Our government is working hard to recover lost biodiversity and protect our marine species," a spokesperson for Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said.

"We are supporting Senate amendments to Bill C-68 to include provisions to ban the captivity of whales and dolphins and prohibit shark finning in Canada."

Family fights to finish Sharkwater Extinction

5 years ago
Duration 10:56
Canadian documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart died during the making of Sharkwater Extinction and his family left their own jobs behind to ensure the film was completed


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.