THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON FISHERIES AND OCEANS
OTTAWA, Thursday, December 7, 2017
The Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans,to which was referred Bill S-238, An Act to amend the Fisheries Act and the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (importation of shark fins), met this day at 8:15 a.m. to give consideration to the bill.
Senator Fabian Manning (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good morning. My name is Fabian Manning, a senator from Newfoundland and Labrador, and I’m pleased to chair this morning’s meeting. Before I give the floor to our witnesses, I would like to invite the members of the committee to introduce themselves, beginning on my immediate right.
Senator Christmas: Dan Christmas from Nova Scotia.
Senator Watt: Charlie Watt, Nunavik.
Senator MacDonald: Michael MacDonald from Nova Scotia.
Senator McInnis: Tom McInnis from Nova Scotia.
Senator Poirier: Rose-May Poirier from New Brunswick.
Senator Ringuette: Pierrette Ringuette from New Brunswick.
Senator Gold: Marc Gold, Quebec.
The Chair: Thank you, senators. We may have some other senators who will join us shortly.
The committee is continuing its study of Bill S-238, An Act to amend the Fisheries Act and the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (importation of shark fins). Today we welcome, by video conference, Dr. Boris Worm, Professor, Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, and Dr. Dirk Steinke, Adjunct Professor, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, Univeristy of Guelph.
On behalf of the members of the committee, professors, I thank you for being here with us today. I understand each of you have some opening remarks. Following your presentations, members of the committee will have some questions for you. The floor is yours.
Boris Worm, Professor, Dalhousie University: Maybe I can give the global overview, and then Dirk can follow up with the fin trade here in Canada.
Thank you, first of all, for the opportunity to speak to the committee on the impact of the fin trade on global shark populations. Could you confirm that you all have the print out of my PowerPoint slides in front of you?
Senator Gold: We do.
Mr. Worm: So, if you wanted to go to the next page, I want to speak to the fact that there is a strong scientific consensus that sharks are among the most threatened wildlife worldwide. They are not as threatened as some of the most endangered mammals, such as primates, or other invertebrates, such as amphibians, with about one third of the species being threatened by extinction.
There have been a large number of articles over the last 15 to 20 years, many of which came out of Canadian institutions, that document the risk that shark populations are at on a global scale, but also regionally in our waters, and what that means for the shark populations as a whole.
There is an estimate that we have come up with that I think has so far been the only global estimate of shark mortality worldwide, which pegs the amount at 100 million sharks that die every year. This was a large synthesis of catch data and of reported data on shark finning and the weight of sharks. We needed to translate numbers of tonnes into numbers of individuals.
The image you can see here is just one fish market in Northern Japan. This happens every day. All of the bodies you see there are large sharks, mostly blue sharks, thresher sharks, hammerhead sharks and other live sharks that are used in the fin trade.
The shark fin trade generally is agreed upon to be the main source of mortality for sharks. The reason for this is that this is a traditional dish which became much more popular in the 1990s and, from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, the total volume of the shark fin trade doubled because of increasing demand and increasing affluence in Asian countries.
As part of the study I mentioned earlier, where we tried to estimate the global mortality of sharks for the first time, we also estimated the proportion that die because of shark finning. That number is 63 per cent. So, about two out of three sharks that die every year are killed exclusively for their fins. You also see the total estimated mortality in terms of tonnes. It’s 1.445 million tonnes, which is a substantial number and, again, it translates into about 100 million sharks per year. If you want to translate that for the duration of our meeting here, during the one hour that we have, about 11,000 sharks will be killed.
With the next slide, I want to speak briefly to a brand new study that just came out this month on the species in the fin trade. This is a similar technique to what Dr. Steinke employed, which is to use forensic DNA techniques to essentially conduct a CSI investigation, if you will, into the shark fin trade more broadly. This revealed that the top 10 species were all large pelagic sharks, many of which are threatened by extinction.
On the slide you see the images of the sharks. From left to right, and top to bottom, they are blue sharks, silky sharks, three species of hammerhead sharks, mako sharks, bull sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, dusky sharks and two species of thresher sharks. Several of these species occur in our waters and most of these species are listed as threatened by extinction.
If you look at the extinction risk of the species in the fin trade — not just the top 10, but all of them — you see that about one third are threatened with extinction. This is true for shark populations more broadly, but also within the fin trade. Then, 30 per cent are near-threatened with extinction, meaning that they are not immediately threatened and they won’t go extinct in our lifetime, but they could move into the threatened category if nothing is done. There are 20 per cent that seem of least concern, meaning that they are not in any immediate danger, and then 17 per cent are either data-deficient, meaning we can’t assess them because we know nothing about them, or they just haven’t been assessed for other reasons. Overall, this says that two out of three shark species in the fin trade are either threatened or near-threatened with extinction, which I think should be a real wake up call.
Of those 76 species that have been identified through DNA techniques in the fin trade, only 15 — so a relatively small proportion — have sustainably managed fisheries anywhere in the range. This doesn’t mean that as a population or as a species it is sustainably managed. It just says that there may be one aspect of their population that is sustainably managed, such as the Alaska skate or dusky shark in U.S. waters. However, in other waters, the dusky shark, a species that has a certain global distribution, might be a very different story.
The chance of finding a sustainably fished shark fin in the trade is very small because it’s a small number of species and, within these species, a smaller number of populations that are actually sustainably fished. They do exist, but it’s a drop in the bucket if you look at the overall volume of the trade.
With that, I would like to present my conclusions. From a scientific standpoint, people have studied this for about 20 years, and I have done so for about 15 years.
There is no doubt that the fin trade is threatening many shark populations with extinction. These are some of the oldest living vertebrates on the planet. They are twice as old as dinosaurs are, but they are still around. They have survived major mass extinctions and now the main threat to the existence of this group is shark finning.
Very few sustainable shark fisheries exist. They do exist, but they are few and far between.
Species identification is very difficult once the fins are detached because the skin is removed, they get bleached and change in many ways. It’s very hard to tell the species once it’s processed as a shark fin. This means it’s almost impossible to distinguish between threatened and non-threatened species unless you use the very involved DNA techniques that were employed in the study I presented and the study that Dirk will talk about.
Finally, I think the scientific community would very much welcome Canada’s banning the landing or import of detached fins and provide international leadership on this global issue.
I was at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water this year, and I will say I felt proud of my country because Canada is taking leadership on a variety of issues. Shark fins is not yet among them, but this could be one more opportunity for us to re-establish our global leadership in marine management and conservation.
With that, I thank you and I look forward to your questions.
The Chair: Thank you, Dr. Worm.
Dirk Steinke, Professor, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics - Univeristy of Guelph: Thank you very much. I think I should be able to actually get the presentation up on the screen for you. Is that correct?
Hon. Senators: Yes.
Mr. Steinke: Can you see it? I believe you have printouts, as well.
The Chair: We can see it, doctor.
Mr. Steinke: Thank you. What I would like to do is build on what Boris has just presented and introduce you to some of the research we have been doing for the last 11 or 12 years, in which we looked into the shark fin trade in particular. One problem that was pointed out right before I started talking is that it’s very difficult to identify a shark fin based on its existence alone, especially when you just have to look at it. We were looking into DNA-based methods actual help with that.
What I’m going to say is probably a little bit redundant for you, as you have already heard a lot about this kind of trade and about the animals affected by it. This is just a small introduction of what that actually entails for sharks and what makes this problem an even greater one.
Shark fins is a huge market that targets what is probably one of the most vulnerable species in the oceans, simply because sharks usually have a very low number of offspring. They can’t reproduce in large quantities like many other fish and their stocks. They have a very slow growth rate.
Lots of species actually live at least part of their life, if not longer, in cold waters, which also slows growth and their entire metabolism. They have comparably long life spans, which also means they have a late age of maturity, so any kind of large-scale impact through fisheries -- whether it’s shark finning per se or the landing of entire carcasses -- has a huge impact. Actually, at a certain tipping point, it is almost impossible to recover these populations simply because the entire population growth is very low and slow.
In the slide you see a couple of images you have probably seen before of how shark fins are usually landed. I think one of the biggest problems is not only the fact that sharks can be landed as whole carcasses, but that fishermen in affected regions where this is done as a large business quickly discovered that it’s much more valuable to land just fins. This is the one crucial thing we always talk about because sharks are then usually caught on-ship, fins are cut off, and the carcasses thrown overboard. That is simply because, in comparison between a fin and a carcass, the carcass is worth almost nothing while the fins, which you can see in the image at the bottom, are then sold.
Often they are bleached and air-dried, which is ideal for scientists because air-dried specimens usually retain the DNA in sufficient quality so that later on when they are sold, the scientists can retrieve enough information from them.
On the other hand, sharks are not only the most vulnerable but, also, probably the most important when you speak of an entire ocean as an ecosystem. They maintain all the species below them in the food chain or in the food network. For us, as scientists, they serve as a very important indicator of ocean health because we can immediately see that if they are not doing well, then something along the food network is also not doing well and we can probe further into that.
They also help to remove the weak and sick. I have heard scientists referring to them as sort of the garbage collectors and the health police, because they usually target those first.
Also, very importantly, they keep the balance with competitors in helping to ensure species diversity. Some of them have an immediate impact if you remove the shark from the equation because you have targeted a certain population. Fishing fleets go only in certain particular regions to fish and there are examples.
One is a study from Dalhousie University a couple of years ago that found that shark overfishing actually had an impact on the scallop population, something that is very important in terms of fisheries. The reason for that was that sharks had been increasingly removed from the region by fisheries and the sharks were the first ones that actually fed on predators of the scallops, which are usually skates and small rays. All of a sudden the sharks disappeared, the population numbers of skates and rays increased, and the predation pressure on the scallops increased so heavily that the people harvesting scallops actually felt the immediate impact of that.
There are a couple of these examples out there showing us that if sharks disappear in certain areas of the ocean because the fishing pressure increases — no matter how we land them — it has an impact on the entire ecosystem.
More toward the study we did, and which we published this year, what we’re doing here in Guelph is developing a method. It’s about 13 years ago that we decided on a genetic region of an organism's genome, and all of the organisms share these particular gene regions. A shorter region, because it’s easier to retrieve, for most laboratories nowadays, it’s an easy thing to do. Still there are costs involved and work to prepare samples accordingly. Our idea is if we collect this particular region, which we call a DNA barcode, for every organism on the planet, and store it in a commonly accessible database, everyone who has the capability of doing DNA sequencing can retrieve information from that. If you have an unknown piece of tissue, you sequence that particular gene region, if you liken it to “CSI,” it’s exactly what we’re doing, and we can then tell what species it is.
In the last 11 years, we have been collecting very actively fish data in that regard. We have a reference library that comprises pretty much half of all the fish species, including over 600 of the 1,000 sharks and ray species, and most commercially interesting species of fish in total, meaning that if we go out and collect these fins in the trade, we can take little samples from it, retrieve its DNA, and immediately identify what species they belong to.
This is what we did for samples we obtained in Vancouver in certain stores there that sells shark fins to restaurant owners or vendors across the city. Unfortunately, what we were able to find is that most of the fins we obtained in these stores, or friends of ours, belong to species that fall under the Red List's second category. Sixty per cent of them are in the two endangered vulnerable categories; so species that we’re very concerned about their disappearance and another 20 per cent are near threatened. Boris explained what that means. In total, 80 per cent of the shark species we found in our market study belong to a category where we are, as scientists and globally as part of the IUCN, very concerned about the impact on the populations.
This is very concerning. As you see, some of species in this figure have little CITES lists or marks that mean recently a lot of them — well, in total, there are only 20 — are added to the CITES Appendix II, which usually means that there is — I wouldn’t say there is a ban on trade, because that is not the truth. CITES II usually means that the countries that sell them have to at least try to find out if there is any kind of sustainable way of fishing these species.
This was the concern found in Vancouver. It’s not a single event. It’s nothing that occurs only once or so. We have colleagues in the U.S. as well as in Australia who see similar things in Australia. For example, they confiscate on the sea because ships from other countries violate Australian waters. They do that for shark finning because shark finning is illegal, as in many other countries, but the landing is always the problem, such as here.
I would like to offer my conclusions as well.
The fin trade is endangering one of the most important and vulnerable groups of species in our oceans. There is no question. Shark populations are not equipped to recover quickly, which means there is also some urgency in any kind of decisions that will happen. The more we put pressure on these populations, the less likely it is they recover from our impact.
Shark declines lead to severe impacts of other members of the ecosystem. Take one out of a very complex system, and especially a top one, and it has a trickle-down effect on the entire system.
The good news is that if we have the capacities to do DNA testing and DNA barcoding, say an easier way of doing DNA tests, it could help with the species identification of detached fins and other products. That’s especially important down the road when you think of a ban being in place and you want to enforce it.
A large proportion of shark fins sold in Canada, and we think concluding from Vancouver and some smaller probes we did in Toronto in some of the stores, shows that most of the fins are from endangered and threatened species.
Yes, Michael and I, on this paper and worldwide, really urge Canada to ban the import of detached fins and set an example for other countries because there aren’t a lot right now that do. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you, professors.
Senator Gold: Professors, thank you very much for making time to be with us. It was really very interesting.
This is a question for both of you, but my starting point is actually an article, Professor Worm, that you co-wrote with other colleagues on marine policy when you wrote that, “Although an important first step, these policies are not explicitly designed to reduce catch or ensure sustainability.”
Might I invite you to comment on that and, more generally, what effect do you think the banning of shark fins from being imported into Canada will have on the overall conservation goals that you very eloquently underlined? Thank you.
Mr. Worm: Thank you for that question. What we meant by that is that a majority of countries have legislation that prohibits shark finning by which is meant the removal of shark fins at sea and then those fins are landed while the carcass is discarded. By itself, this is not designed to reduce shark mortality. It often does if it’s enforced, but, of course, a dead shark is a dead shark, whether it’s discarded or landed. By itself, it may or may not reduce mortality.
In practice, what we’re finding is that these finning regulations are in place, but they often are not enforced. There was a study recently in the Pacific showing that, since finning regulations came in, the mortality of sharks in the negative population, the collapse of population, has actually accelerated, not slowed. The reason for that is simply that those bans are not enforced because there are a lot of nations and it’s a very wide territory.
I think this is different in Canada. I don’t have reason to believe shark finning is still a practice in Canada. You hear about it once in a while as a rumour, but I haven’t seen any hard evidence of shark finning this year. However, it’s still good to make it clear that this practice is generally not allowed.
The big loophole is that shark fins can still come into this country from other nations, and we have no way of telling how those sharks were fished, whether they were finned or landed as a whole ,or come from a sustainable fishery. That’s the main point here.
We didn’t mean to say that shark finning regulations are useless. It’s only that by themselves they have not been able to halt the decline of many shark populations.
Trade regulations, such as the one we are discussing here, are a different matter. This is not what we commented on. We commented on fisheries regulation in individual countries, but trade regulations, more generally, are a much sharper tool to get at the heart of the problem.
Why do I think this? Because CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is a trade regulation that has been successful over its 30-plus year history to prevent extinction of every single species listed under CITES. Not one of those species has gone extinct. It is the sharpest tool in our toolbox.
Several shark populations since 2012 or 2013, I believe, the first year when shark populations were listed, are now under the protection of CITES. Again, it’s a small population. I think it’s six of them. As we hear, there are at least 10 or maybe 15 times more species in the shark fin trade.
I think trade regulation is a good idea. It’s actually a sharp and effective tool as judged by the records of CITES.
Mr. Steinke: I can reiterate that we don’t see shark finning as a practice here in Canada at all. I haven’t heard anything in the last 10 years that points to that on some scale that is noticeable.
CITES is a very sharp trade tool. The only problem we have with CITES now, because it’s an international treaty-based system, it takes a while to go into effect. Currently, with the newest update, we have 20 species of sharks and rays together that are protected under that. Given that, we are looking at probably 60 or 70 species that are affected most immediately by shark finning, let alone all the other ones that are affected by general shark fisheries or bycatches of other fisheries. It is a very good tool; it’s very successful. Unfortunately, time is probably running out for us in that sense.
Yes, the one problem we are looking at here is really the trade of detached fins. I can only reiterate that, from my personal experience, usually when you get some sort of control over a certain issue is when it has to do with the market. The demand has to drop before practices and everything upstream will change. If you, for the last 10 years, fight this battle for shark finning and don’t see the demand automatically changing by consumer behaviour changing, then you have to think about some sort of a legislative way to actually stop some part of it from happening.
Senator McInnis: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for this. This bill, if it does nothing else, certainly has brought great attention, to this committee, to the cruelty that we see taking place in our oceans.
I wanted to talk just a bit — and perhaps you could help here — about the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, commonly known as CITES. Apparently, there are some 183 countries that are signatories to this convention. If one of these countries, for example, China or Sri Lanka — I don’t know if they are — were signatories to this, what effect does that have? You have identified and, obviously, they would know or should know, that some of these species are endangered. If they are endangered, what effect is it to be a signatory to CITES?
Mr. Worm: What CITES says is that, if you’re a signatory, you cannot trade in species that are listed under Appendix 1. You can only trade in species that are listed under Appendix 2 if they come from a certified, sustainable source. So, it limits the trade in these endangered species. Elephants, rhinos or tigers are good examples.
The difference with sharks is that an elephant tusk or rhino horn or tiger fur can be readily identified. It can only come from one species. In terms of elephants or rhinos, it may be two species, but it’s a small number of species. It’s very clear what it is. With sharks, the CITES listing is very new. The first species were listed in 2013. The problem here is that, once it’s processed, as I said, when a big shipment of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of fins is coming in, it’s very hard to tell which fins are from the CITES list of species and which are not, because they all essentially look the same once they are processed. There are large ones and small ones, but the small ones can come from a juvenile of a large species, such as a white shark, for example.
Where people have looked, like Dr. Steinke in Vancouver, they have found that CITES-listed species, in this case hammerheads, the thresher sharks, or manta rays for that matter, are part of the trade. It’s very hard to filter every single shipment in a way to make sure that it’s only non-CITES-listed species or CITES-listed species.
To answer your question, this would apply to China as well. China would only legally import shark fins from species that are not listed under CITES. They would not import species that are listed under CITES, but, again, given the volume of the trade, there is a real problem with enforcement and telling the CITES-listed fins from the non-listed fins.
This is a good reason to ban the import of shark fins completely because, if you import whole carcasses, then you can always tell the species. That’s easy. If you have the whole carcass, you can tell the species without problem. If you only have the fin, it’s almost impossible to tell the species. That’s really the rationale behind this.
You were asking, more broadly, about impact on those countries that are larger consumers of shark fins, and I will point out that the demand in this country has also dropped because of the education that has been going on. Five years ago, surveys in China, for example, showed that most people believed that shark fins were a sustainable product because they would grow back once the shark is thrown back in the water. Of course, the shark always dies. This was something that wasn’t widely known. Now, it’s widely known and, increasingly, people are thinking twice about this. But, as Dr. Steinke was pointing out, because of the slow change in demand and the slow pace of these social changes, it may not be enough to halt the shark fin demand.
I just talked to a front-line enforcement officer in May this year. This is somebody who is working in all of these countries on enforcement. She said that, in her estimation, the shark fin trade is just as alive and well as it has ever been. It hasn’t slowed down at all. It just goes through different channels. A lot of it goes through Vietnam and not Hong Kong anymore. She was just as concerned as she was 10 years ago.
Senator McInnis: There is no effective policing of this, is there?
Mr. Worm: Unless you do DNA testing, which costly and time consuming, there is no effective way of policing.
Mr. Steinke: The only two species that could ever be not separated from each other but one was able to tell that they had come from a particular shark species were whale and baskin sharks. That’s only because they are so ginormous that there is no other shark that has these fins. Those were the first two species on the CITES listing. Everything else, there is no way because the product is not only inseparable in a fresh state but, when you go into a store, you will find only yellow-orangey fins that have been dried.
For enforcement officers — and we work with some here that actually go regularly to Pearson Airport to get confiscated material — it’s a huge problem because, in front of them, lies a large pile of fins. They usually come from probably about 20 or 25 species. A few of them fall under CITES regulations, and the rest are legally imported. There is no trade ban or anything on them. They have to make a call on that, and they cannot be based on just observing them.
Senator MacDonald: Good morning, gentlemen. I think I’ll start with you, Professor Worm. One of the questions asked of me the other day I want to get clarification on and I’m hoping you will help. It’s with regard to imitation shark fin. My understanding is that there is a more-than-reasonable substitute available in China and Southeast Asia. I’m just wondering if you could elaborate on that for the panel?
Mr. Worm: Yes, good morning. It’s interesting that you bring this up because I had it in my mind to bring this up after the last question about impact on importing countries. Indeed, there are a number of substitute products that match the texture and colour of shark fins. Shark fins, once they are processed, don’t have a taste, so you actually don’t even have to worry about taste. It’s simply a texture that is used in a particular broth to give a certain kind of eating experience.
There are several imitation products that are not derived from sharks. They are derived from mostly plant-based materials. These can be used, and they are regularly used in Asia as a substitute and increasingly used as a substitute. It’s important to know this because it means that the cultural practice of enjoying shark fin soup can continue, much as now we have substitutes for, say, turtle soup in our culture. When I was a kid growing up in Europe, turtle soup was still served in some restaurants. I think I’ve had it, and I wondered, at the time, what it was. Now, it’s not anymore, and we have substitutes. The same can be done here. These products are widely available because they are much cheaper.
Senator MacDonald: One more question. This is for both of you. I look at the situation in Southeast Asia at the moment. The Chinese government is banning the use of shark fin soup at banquets. Air China has banned the transportation of it through air freight. What would be the next logical step? We still see huge imports coming to Canada from China.
Why is there such a divergence in intent here in terms of some of these governments? I mean, on the one hand, China is banning the transportation and use of it in certain instances, but, on the other, there are still huge exports going out to countries like Canada. What is the next step?
Mr. Worm: Well, I think this is still ongoing because cultural practices are slow to change. I think that’s the sole reason. It will change, but, as we said before, we may not have enough time to wait for that.
I think the next logical step is to promote the use of substitutes and to ban the import of shark fins into major importing countries like Canada. It’s a relatively easy thing to do and I think a lot of countries are at least considering or thinking about this, but, again, Canada could provide international leadership here.
I’m surprised that it has taken us this long to seriously consider this problem. Shark finning was widespread in Canada before the regulations came in, in the 1990s. It is not anymore here, but it still is elsewhere in the world.
I travel a lot and I was just in the Galapagos. While I was there, a Chinese vessel that was seized was full of thousands and thousands of shark fins. It really shocked the Ecuadorians because they could visually appreciate the scale of this problem. They hold a lot of pride in the Galapagos in their large population of hammerhead sharks, which is one of the main targets of the shark fin trade. That is illegal because it’s a CITES-listed species, but it’s still ongoing.
This, and many other examples I have encountered in my travels over the last few years, really highlight that we are having a global problem here and Canada can play an important role in setting the stage for solving this problem.
Mr. Steinke: I can only emphasize that Canada playing a leading role in that would probably send a signal, especially to encourage those countries already considering similar bans to put them into effect. Canada would be among the nations to have some sort of trade ban in this form. We are one of the larger ones and probably would have more impact.
Plus, let’s face it, according to the FAO numbers, Canada is the largest importer of shark fins outside of Southeast Asia, which would have an effect on the market itself, as well.
Yes, in China, they are very proactive now in sending signals from the government and from airlines, which has an impact on the population, for sure. I just talked to a student of Chinese descent here and he said that had a huge effect on the population there. He said that the governments were not going to offer shark fin soup, or at least shark fin soup substitutes, at big dinners, because the soup itself is still perceived as something that indicates wealth, generosity and everything else to do with that cultural value around it. It’s slowly being broken up through the Chinese government and other large-scale Chinese companies to do that.
What Boris also mentioned before is because of that, some of the trade is driven toward other countries that don’t have that in effect. All of a sudden, trade goes through Vietnam, Korea and other countries where this is not so heavily regulated, as it probably is in China now and will be for the next years going forward.
As usual, if a trade has a blockage in one way, they try to find a way around it. There is a bottleneck, so they go and find a different way through it. However, at the receiving end if Canada — and other nations that hopefully will follow that example — says, “Stop, we don’t accept the product here in our markets anymore,” that will probably have a much larger effect on the entire thing. And it will not take as long because, as we reiterated, time is running out for the sharks.
Senator Poirier: Thank you, gentlemen, for the presentation. I’m looking for some clarity in terms of what uses there are for the whole shark carcass when the fishing is done in a sustainable manner. I was a bit confused by some of the information I had received and I am just trying to understand it.
From what I understood, the shark is somewhat toxic for human consumption, but then we have the fin soup. Then, at another point, I thought I heard that in some countries — I’m not sure if it was France or elsewhere — you could see different parts of sharks being sold out in the open market for different reasons.
Is there sustainable fishing here? How is it and what do they do with the carcass?
Mr. Worm: Again, it depends a lot on the species. Here in Canada, for example, we had a 40-year shark fishery. Undoubtedly, the fins were sold to Asia and the carcass was landed because the meat, when it’s properly processed, can be consumed; there is a market for it. It’s not very valuable, but it was worth doing. A few fishermen here in Sambro, just south of Halifax, did that, but even in that fishery, which was tightly regulated and assessed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the sustainability concerns became such that the fishery was essentially closed.
Even here in Canada, where we have all the wherewithal to do it well, we weren’t able to sustain that population and the fishery remains closed.
As you pointed out, there are some species of sharks that cannot be consumed and so the fin is the only product that can be derived from those sharks. But there are others that can be consumed. For example, there are others, like blue sharks, which are consumed in Spain. But still, Spain — being the world’s largest or second-largest producer of shark fins, depending on the numbers you believe — would only import a small proportion of the carcasses because there is simply not enough market for tens or hundreds of millions of sharks to be consumed. There may be a market for a few thousand and those are consumed, but again most of the animals are discarded at sea because the value is so low.
You’re much better off stuffing your hull on a 5,000-, 6,000- or 10,000-mile journey with high-value tuna and shark fins, which don’t take up a lot of space, rather than with sharks for which you will only get pennies a pound.
Senator Poirier: Is there any likelihood, in your opinion, that another country would challenge a Canadian ban on shark fin imports?
Mr. Worm: That’s an interesting question. I would not think so, no. It’s not in violation of any trade regulations. There is precedent from other countries, like the Bahamas for example, where sharks are greatly valued, and French Polynesia, where sharks are actually considered sacred.
I think the ripple effect, or the signal effect, would be substantial because of Canada’s standing in the world. The Bahamas and French Polynesia are small countries with not a lot of weight on the international stage. Canada is a leader in many ways. We just had the Canadian ambassador to the UN here at Dalhousie last week. He spoke about how a lot of countries are looking at Canada, now more than ever, for leadership on many issues, such as the climate and oceans. This, of course, being part of the oceans issue, would have that effect. I think Canada has a real role to play and I would not foresee us being challenged on this.
Senator Poirier: Can you tell me how many countries out there have already legislated a ban on the importation of shark fins?
Mr. Steinke: It is five or six, I believe, including the Bahamas and Costa Rica. I think Egypt is probably the one I would consider being involved very much in shark landings from the Mediterranean Sea, but the numbers are really low. We did studies on the diversity of sharks in the Mediterranean and the landings are not comparable to anything that we are currently talking about.
In total, five or six countries actually have a ban in effect. And there are a couple of states within the United States, which include, for example, California. Others in more central parts of the U.S. probably don’t have a lot of shark fins sold there, so it’s relatively easy to enforce a ban. It’s not a unilateral American decision; it’s really a couple of states going forward there.
Senator Poirier: Would you say there is a worldwide trend starting or going on to try to eliminate shark fin fishing?
Mr. Worm: Yes.
Mr. Steinke: Yes, I would think so. There have been decisions in Asia, like that in China, and there is a huge trend towards that.
Senator Christmas: Thank you, professors, for sharing your work and study on sharks and the shark fin trade.
If Canada bans the importation of all shark fins, I assume that this would also affect the importation of shark fins that come from sustainable shark fisheries. I guess my question is this: Do we have the technology, or do we have the means, to distinguish if shark fins are not from sustainable shark fisheries?
Mr. Worm: The answer is no, we don’t have those means. I know the researcher who is looking into this. You need to be able to not just distinguish different species because some species are listed as CITES species or are unsustainable by definition, but then there are some species, say, blue shark or others, that are managed presumably sustainably in part of their range but not in other parts. You would have to be able to tell not just the species it is, but also where exactly it comes from.
Some species have DNA signatures that actually give away their origin. The DNA signature is slightly different from a North Atlantic shark than from a South Atlantic or a Pacific shark. It depends on the species. Some species, like blue sharks, are all mixed up. You can’t really do that well. Other species have more population structure and you can do that. However, these are very involved techniques and, if we are already failing to identify species, then it’s even less likely that we are able to identify populations.
In principle, it’s doable for some species, not for all species. But it’s impractical, and it would be very costly.
Senator Christmas: I guess the point I was trying to drive at — and I think you have answered my question quite well — is that, if we ban all importation of shark fins, then, obviously, we will end up penalizing the sustainable shark fisheries. I was trying to find out if there was a middle ground somewhere where Canada would, in fact, not allow the importation of illegal shark fins but then would be more permissible for the importation of those fins that came from sustainable shark fisheries. If I understand your answer correctly, you’re saying it’s not possible. It’s not practical at this point in time. Is that correct?
Mr. Worm: It is correct. I will point out that, say, the sustainable shark fishery in the U.S. could still import whole sharks into Canada, no problem, and the fins could be used. So that fishery would still have access to the Canadian market, just not only fins, because then it becomes very hard to distinguish, but whole sharks. That would be possible. Between the U.S. and Canada, that would probably happen to some extent, and that would be okay because, in the U.S., as in Canada, things are tightly regulated, unless elsewhere in the world.
Senator Hartling: Thank you. Good morning. Thank you very much for your commitment and your expertise on this very important topic. I agree that I would like to see Canada be leaders in this area, having good bills and trade agreements, but I’m thinking about especially our young people.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to my nephews and they were studying sharks. Are there any advocacy groups or educational tools, because a part of change comes with education? Just wondering what, in Canada, is available, or who is working on that?
Mr. Worm: I love that question because, here at Dalhousie, we are leading a project with the National Film Board, Ocean School, where we are trying to provide ocean literacy materials to teachers in schools across Canada. This is audio-visual materials, even some virtual reality content, that allows students to go for a dive themselves and see sharks in their natural habitat, among other creatures.
Among the footage we produced, for example, was the first ever footage of Canadian baskin sharks, the second-largest fish of all time. It has been especially very valuable in the fin trade and there are real concerns for the species. Now, students are able to experience that species for themselves. With the enjoyment and interest that that creates, we can also bring about an awareness of the some of the threats that these species face and, hopefully, we can highlight what Canada is doing to make sure that these species will still be around for their children.
Mr. Steinke: I agree. There are a couple of advocacy groups that are very active in that respect. Probably, they can’t compete with the Ocean School because this is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but there is a lot that the WWF does in terms of their school programs that are geared toward the particular curricula and raise awareness.
After all, there is one documentary that raised awareness across Canada and the world of the late Rob Stewart, “Sharkwater.” If you’re talking about kids of high school age, it’s probably the right thing to watch, with proper educational tools and so on and a teacher that can actually talk with them about what they see there. It clearly shows how the trade works, what it means for the sharks. I know there is a second one following up anytime soon, so they are currently producing that one. So that would be another one to point out. If it weren’t for Rob Stewart, in that respect, we would probably not be sitting together right now and discussing this matter.
Senator Gold: If I understand what has emerged today it is that, in your view, the banning of shark fins into Canada would be a step toward reducing the degradation of the shark population, but it’s only a step and would require leadership, exercise with other like-minded countries and the like to reduce market demand.
I’m informed, in a sense, by the work, Dr. Steinke, that you’ve done on the DNA testing. In an article that you co-wrote, you mentioned the importance of market surveillance as a conservation measure. If this is the first step for us, as the sponsor of the bill pointed out in his remarks to us, what are other things that Canada should be doing and could be doing to enforce the protection of endangered species, beyond banning or in addition to banning shark fin imports? I’m taking us a bit beyond the purview of this bill, but I take advantage of your expertise.
Mr. Steinke: When talking about market surveillance, we very often mean a consumer at the other end who is really concerned and doesn’t want to have a certain product that is probably masking behind it. It comes from an unsustainable fishery or from a species that is endangered and actually illegally traded.
With DNA technologies that get more and more modern and probably, 10 years from now, will be in the hands of everyone, where you can actually do your own DNA testing and verify what species you’re looking at, we are trying to push that forward, push the boundaries there. For what we are currently doing, we are more and more starting to work with enforcement officers, the ones that, later on, once the trade ban like this is in effect, have to control the trade. Somebody has to do the spot checks and say, “This is not correct. This comes from an unsustainable fishery.” Although that one, as we’ve just talked about, is difficult.
More than that, it’s consumer protection, but also we have an increasing number of people who are really concerned about what lands on their table for food or what products their clothing or everything is made of. What we’re trying to do is get modern technology involved to an extent that we can actually enable consumers to do that actively because they are more and more taking ownership of what they want, and they need tools on hand that give them this ability.
The one big thing we see, not only with the shark fin trade but wherever we do DNA testing, very often we look into seafood products that are mislabeled. It’s a common theme, over the last 10 years, that you buy certain things that you actually didn’t want to because they are substituted for something cheaper. There is a long chain of hands that products go through. Usually, for example, in this kind of fraud where somebody buys the wrong fish fillet, it’s not the supermarket at the end that is to blame nor the fisherman at the beginning that lands the species. It’s somewhere on the way there, the production, the many hands it goes through. It’s not only our technology. A lot of people are talking about block-chain technology to actually pinpoint certain elements in markets better than before. I don’t think the technology is there; I’m anything but an artificial intelligence expert, but I know these kinds of technologies drive market surveillance forward.
I’m always saying, when it comes to the shark fins, what are the next steps? Of course, this is banning the import of detached fins. At some point, consequently, we have to think of all the other needs for sharks. Shark meat, we heard today, is not a very valuable commodity. In most countries in the world, it’s not a big thing to have, but what else is killing sharks? What else is a problem for them?
We immediately look into future things like fisheries — long line, big nets, things like that — that have sharks as bycatch. That’s probably number two in shark mortality right after finning. That would be the next step. If you really ask me to think big along the way, that would be my next logical step, when I want to make a plea for the sharks.
Mr. Worm: May I enforce the point of bycatch? This is something, even in Canada, we’re struggling with, to avoid catching sharks even when we’re trying not to catch them. Because sharks are so good at finding prey. That includes finding bait. Any bait live in the water is likely to catch a shark. We could be leading on that too.
It is partly a technology question, partly a regulation question, partly a societal awareness question, and I just want to add one more thing is education. We can play a much larger role nationally and internationally with respect to education.
Senator McInnis: I want to ask, how long has this been an issue? How did we get to the point that we have an annual slaughter of a million sharks? Is this a concern throughout the scientific world? You mentioned earlier about attending a conference. Is it an issue at conferences around the world? Finally, what lead are the Departments of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment and Climate Change taking?
Mr. Worm: It is a concern around the world. The awareness has been there for about 20 years in the scientific community. In the public, for 10 years, I would say, largely catalyzed by the film “Shark Water” that anyone interested in the issue should watch. It’s online.
How did we get there? This was long under the radar because sharks didn’t have a particularly good reputation, so people didn’t really worry about them too much. Now, through better education and scientific information, like the one that Mr. Steinke showed about the important role of sharks in the ecosystem, we are appreciating what the slaughter of not one million but 100 million sharks does per year.
It sometimes seems inconceivable, in hindsight, how did we get here? All we can do is look forward and have a solid focus on rebuilding a shark population. Not just maintaining them, but rebuilding them where we can. We can in our waters, and we should start right here. I believe there is some awareness of this in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Sharks are now one of the priorities they are looking at. I hope the scientific communities, including myself, can help with that.
The Chair: I want to thank our two guests for a great conversation this morning, and certainly thank our senators for engaging as we continue our study. Thank you for spending time with us this morning.
Mr. Steinke: It was a pleasure.
(The committee continued in camera.)