Shark fin soup ban not yet in cards

Claudia Li, founder of Shark Truth, and restauranteur Ken Liang, at an announcement of a campaign encouraging couples not to serve shark fin soup at their wedding. - Shark Truth photo
Claudia Li, founder of Shark Truth, and restauranteur Ken Liang, at an announcement of a campaign encouraging couples not to serve shark fin soup at their wedding.
— image credit: Shark Truth photo

Bylaws banning the sale of shark-fin soup will soon take effect in some Ontario cities, but a new Richmond councillor believes education—not a city bylaw—will create change.

“The education approach has been very successful, and I don’t think we need to go this far—to ban it,” said Coun. Chak Au.

Mississauga and Toronto have both approved bylaws banning the sale of shark-fin soup and related products, and restauranteurs and retailers have until mid-2012 to comply.

Au believes the bylaws go too far, noting the new rules also ban consumption and possession. He said someone who puts a fin in the freezer before the bylaw would be contravening the law once it comes into effect.

Shark fin soup is a delicacy symbolizing wealth and health, and traditionally served at Chinese wedding banquets. It’s also on the menu of several Richmond restaurants.

The practice of harvesting fins is widely viewed as inhumane. Demand is also putting the animals at risk of extinction.

But an education campaign against the consumption of shark fin is already showing signs of success, said Au. Chinese mall retailers told him this fall that sales have dropped 90 per cent or more in the last three months. One shop owner told him a single fin hadn’t been sold in the same period.

In restaurants, Au said, the younger generation isn’t interested in ordering the dish.

“I’m a product of the educational process. I consumed shark fin before, but in the last two years, I stopped. I’ve been telling my friends the same thing: this is (inhumane) to consume shark fins, being collected through those illegal means.”

Au said if any government action is taken against the trading of shark fin, it has to at least be regional—if not national.

Federal ban might be brewing

No such ban is brewing in Richmond, according to the mayor’s office, but the issue did garner some attention during recent civic election campaigns in Metro Vancouver. That had much to do with Claudia Li, founder of the Shark Truth campaign.

Despite the fact Canadians imported 77,000 kilograms of shark fin in 2009, Li said her group is seeing more and more wedding couples declare their weddings shark-friendly.

“They’re beginning to realize that at your wedding it’s more about the couple and celebrating the family than what’s on the table,” said Li, noting an average of one shark is killed for each guest table at weddings where the soup is served.

She said education and awareness are fundamental components for change, but government also has a role to play.

“We realize that with a bottom-up approach, you also need a top-down approach, and legislation is going to be, at the end of the day, a very fundamental part of saving these animals.”

Last week Fin Donnelly, NDP MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, introduced legislation in Ottawa to ban shark fin imports.

“With millions of sharks being killed each year just for their fins, this international marine conservation crisis requires immediate action,” said Donnelly, the Opposition’s Fisheries and Oceans Critic, in a statement. “The often illegal targeting of sharks for their fins is causing a rapid decline in shark populations and hurting marine ecosystems around the world.”

In a Mustel poll commissioned by Donnelly, 84 per cent of British Columbians were found to support a federal ban on shark fin imports.

Ban could be seen as ‘attack’ on identity

At the Summer Night Market, Hong Kong vendor Top Wok sold a unique alternative to shark fin soup. His gelatin imitation “Sharp Fin Soup” attracted plenty of attention among market-goers.

But plenty of local eateries still sell the real thing. The website lists restaurants it believes has shark fin soup on its menu, and urges diners to boycott them. As of yesterday, four Richmond restaurants were on the list.

Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, favours creating public awareness of issues surrounding shark fin soup before a government bylaw.

“The first step is we should try to work with industry to try to stop the serving of it,” he said. “We know from our experience that when you engage industry and you get them to be part of the solution, you’ll get better results.”

Conservationist Nicholas Dulvy said a city ban isn’t necessarily the answer.

“How would Canadians react if you said we’re going to ban turkey at Thanksgiving? It would feel like an attack on the identity of Canadians,” said Dulvy, a Simon Fraser University associate professor and Canadian research chair in marine biodiversity and conservation. “In the same way, I could imagine the Chinese community would react pretty badly to external calls on how they should live their lives and set about their traditions.”

Dulvy said he’s been encouraged by the younger generation’s attitudes toward shark fin soup—and he said they seem to be winning over the older generation and communicating the plight of sharks to many members of the Chinese community.

Nonetheless, the shark fin trade is caught in a “very, very severe conservation problem,” he said, noting approximately 38 million sharks are killed each year to support it.

That’s put many species of sharks at a genuine risk of extinction, said Dulvy,

“We don’t know when they might be extinct, it might be 10 years, it might be 100 years, but what we do know is there’s virtually no strong management of shark fisheries out there on the world’s oceans, so there’s nothing to restrain this massive demand from within the Chinese communities around the world.”

Dulvy pointed to the need for sustainable fisheries around the world. This week he was in meetings with Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials, other conservationists and industry representatives to talk about shark fisheries issues right here in Canada.

The meetings have given him hope.

“We know that you can have sustainable shark fisheries. It’s just that many countries in the world are struggling to get to that position.”

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