On Thursday, October 13th I was one of many speakers who addressed the Licensing and Standards Committee at Toronto's City Hall, on whether or not Toronto should ban the sale, possession or consumption of shark fin. The ban was promoted by indefatigable city councillor Glenn De Baermaeker, a staunch conservationist and animal protectionist. On Friday October 7th, the entire state of California passed just such a ban and the council of the city of Mississauga, adjacent to Toronto, had unanimously passed its ban on October 12th. On May 17th the city of Brantford became the first Canadian jurisdiction to ban shark fin.
Why? Most folks reading this probably know the simple answer and those who are squeamish about animal suffering might want to skip this paragraph. Sharks are being caught in huge numbers, and while many parts of their bodies may be used, the most lucrative is the fins. Often the fins are cut off the shark while it is alive and then the living, helpless animal is simply tossed overboard to sink, suffer and die. Much more profit accrues from filling holds with shark fins, than with entire sharks.
And while there are many dozens of species of mostly smaller, little-known and little-studied shark species who are not endangered (or whose population sizes are unknown), many of the large, better-known ones most targeted by the fishing industry are in serious decline, in some cases populations have gone down more than ninety percent; for some, extinction is imminent if nothing is done. Even in areas where sharks are protected from this ghastly practice, called "finning", including Canadian waters, enforcement ranges from challenging to impossible.
But the Toronto Chinese Business Association (TCBA) opposed the ban, in part on the grounds that it would cost caterers and some restaurants loss of income. Shark fin is not a major part of Chinese cuisine, but as something very costly its use in soups prepared for very special occasions, particularly weddings, denotes prestige. It is not, according to those who eat it, the taste or nutrition that is matters, but the cost and subsequent esteem.
But of course the TCBA never addresses how this need will be met when or if the sharks are wiped out! For reasons I'll save it for a future blog some folks seem to not believe that large, familiar animals really can, and do, become extinct.
The other argument was that somehow the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) plus Canadian laws and regulations, would surely assure the survival of sharks. Even one of the proponents of the ban said "CITES only protects three species" (emphasis mine). But actually, the three endangered species she means - the great white shark, the basking shark and the whale shark - are listed on Appendix II of CITES and therefore still allowed to be traded internationally for commercial purposes. Only some of the seven species of endangered sawfishes (closely related to sharks and also caught for their fins; some are critically endangered) receive absolute protection under from legal
commercial international trade by virtue of Appendix I listings.
And as for the Canadian government, forget it. Yes, the endangered porbeagle shark has a limit on how many are supposed to be caught in Canada, but notwithstanding its endangered status, it is still legally caught for commercial use. Eleven Canadian species of fish have either been exterminated or extirpated in Canada, all freshwater species. If Canada can't protect species in lakes and rivers, it certainly can't protect oceanic species, and indeed, many have become rare or endangered under Canadian management. Most spectacular of these is the northwest Atlantic northern cod.
The committee unanimously voted to support the ban, and the proposal comes before Toronto's City Council on October 24th.
Barry Kent MacKay