Cross Country Checkup

Despite Canada's ban on shark fin imports, the appetite for them lingers: activist

When Nathan Cheng is served shark fin soup at weddings, he turns it away. The animal rights activist says that other young Asian Canadians have also turned their backs on the delicacy — despite pushback from parents and grandparents.

Federal government passed a bill in June making the shark fin trade illegal

Shark fins are seen during their drying process in Jakarta, Indonesia. The federal Liberal government passed an amendment to the Fisheries Act in June, banning shark fin imports into Canada. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

After the federal government passed a bill banning shark fin imports, animal rights activist Nathan Cheng says the new legislation could change perceptions of the meat as a delicacy.

Many young Chinese-Canadians, he said, refuse to eat shark fin soup — a luxury in some Asian cultures  — but have upheld the tradition out of respect for elders, particularly during weddings and celebrations.

With new amendments to the federal Fisheries Act passed in June, including a ban on the shark fin trade, Cheng believes it will be easier to avoid the dish.

"The younger generation doesn't want to eat it … they need a reason not to serve it without disrespecting [elders]," Cheng, a volunteer with Vancouver-based advocacy group Shark Truth, told Cross Country Checkup.

Finning, the practice of removing a shark's fin and releasing them back into the water, was banned in Canada for domestic species in 1994. But imports remained legal.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 148,000 kg of shark fins were imported into the country in 2018, worth over $3.2 million.

Nathan Cheng, left, is pictured with his wife, right, and the late Rob Stewart. Stewart was the director of Sharkwater, a 2006 documentary that examined the shark fin industry. (Submitted by Nathan Cheng)

Animal welfare advocates have long condemned the practice of finning as cruel and unsustainable; connoisseurs of the delicacy have suggested banning the practice would denigrate Asian traditions.

"That argument was used more by the restaurants as an argument to serve it," Cheng said. "But I disagree ... and other politicians have disagreed saying, 'We're Chinese and we don't eat it.'"

Cultural sensitivity

Philip Loring, a professor of sustainability at the University of Guelph, said food has always been politicizing.

Meat producers, for example, have faced backlash from animal welfare advocates for decades. But as climate change becomes a priority for some consumers, Loring said the reasons behind switching to a plant-based diet have changed.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in climate change and people wanting to find ways to make their diets more climate friendly so to speak," he told Checkup.

But whether or not Canadians avoid meat for sustainability or animal welfare reasons, Loring said that the conversation must be nuanced — especially when it comes to respecting cultural traditions.

"These are fundamental aspects of who we are and changing those things doesn't happen quickly," he said. 

Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in many Asian cultures. According to Nathan Cheng, a bowl can cost anywhere from $10 to over $100 depending on the density. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

"Maybe in the cases of sharks, at a very small scale this was a delicacy; this was something that was not eaten very often," Loring said.

"Now we have all of these people who are all wanting to be able to participate in this delicacy at a time when sharks and other ocean species are already challenged by issues like climate change."

'That conflict is gone'

As a wedding guest, Cheng said he would go out of his way to avoid shark fin soup. If it was served to him, he would return it to a server. He said fellow attendees would even try to "steal" a second helping from him. 

"Then I have to literally pour the bowl out on to something. Just pour out so no one will eat it," he recalled.

Dried shark fins are displayed in a store in Toronto's downtown Chinatown. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

When it comes to wedding planning, Cheng said serving shark fin soup has been contentious, particularly for those facing pressure from parents and grandparents. Using a more sustainable substitute in the soup — bowls of which can cost upward of $100, he said — reflected poorly on the couple.

"It's almost like a faux pas." 

Cheng recognizes that there is still work to be done in communicating with communities that enjoy shark fin as a delicacy, but with the rare meat now outlawed he believes that the tension caused by the traditional dish could soon shrink.

"It's illegal, it's not available, the restaurant does not serve it," he said. "The confrontation, that conflict, is gone."


With files from Samantha Lui

About the Author

Jason Vermes

Digital Associate Producer

Jason Vermes is an award-winning digital and radio producer for CBC Radio’s Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. He has previously worked on As It Happens, The Current and Spark, and reported on accessibility & disability for Accessible Media Inc. You can contact him by email: jason.vermes@cbc.ca.

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