Shark fin debate ‘could get ugly’

Coun. Chak Au at Richmond City Hall Monday. Au is encouraging ‘calm, rational’ debate around the possible prohibition of shark fins. - Matthew Hoekstra photo
Coun. Chak Au at Richmond City Hall Monday. Au is encouraging ‘calm, rational’ debate around the possible prohibition of shark fins.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra photo

A Richmond councillor is calling for calm in a divisive debate he believes could pit cultures against each other.

“I am concerned that the shark fin debate will divide our community along racial and cultural lines,” said Coun. Chak Au. “Things could get ugly in the next six months, and I don’t want to see that happen.”

Richmond City Hall staff have until year’s end to report on a possible ban of shark fins, which animal rights activists say are harvested inhumanely and threaten species with extinction.

Toronto is enacting a ban in September and prohibition talks are spreading fast. On Monday, council in Calgary voted 13-2 to draft a ban on possession of shark fin. Politicians in Saanich backed a shark fin ban resolution for the Union of B.C. Municipalities to consider.

Some communities like Port Moody already prohibit shark fins, but with few Chinese restaurants and food retailers, have less at stake than Richmond.

Local restaurateur David Chung told The Review last week that shark fin soup “is a tradition that we don’t want to break,” suggesting “Chinese people have become part of the food chain,” keeping shark populations in check.

Online reaction was swift, with many commenters attacking Chung.

Au, an immigrant from Hong Kong, sees himself as a bridge between cultures, and said efforts at building awareness around shark fin harvesting are paying off. He said attitudes are changing, particularly among young people, and sales are down.

“A shop owner told me that he had not sold an ounce of shark fin in three months. This shows that education has been effective,” said Au. “You can do more (through education) without the negative side-effect of people feeling angry.”

Au is calling for a “made in Richmond” solution, and encourages residents to offer comments to city hall while considering all implications of a ban.

“I hope that the issue around shark fin ban can be discussed in a calm and rational manner with stakeholders will be consulted before a decision is made, so that we can do the right thing in the right way.”

Any ban must be “reasonable, enforceable and without unintended negative consequences,” he said, noting consequences are many for a municipal government.

A ban could open the city up to legal challenges—reportedly happening in Toronto—since the federal government currently allows shark fin imports. A ban could also prompt local retailers and restaurateurs to seek compensation from the city for lost revenue, said Au.

Another potential challenge with a local ban could arise at the airport, Au noted, when people arrive in legal possession of shark fins—then leave the airport and enter Richmond.

Au noted in the U.S., Pacific coast state governments—not city councils—have shark fin bans in place.

In Canada, federal NDP MP Fin Donnelly has proposed legislation banning importation of shark fins, but no action has yet been taken on the bill.

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