July 14 is Shark Awareness Day.
The inhumane and wasteful deaths of 73 million sharks are an ecological disaster in full progress. 73 million. That’s the number of sharks scientists estimate are killed each year to satisfy the global demand for shark fin soup.
Most of these sharks will have their fins cut off at sea, usually while they are still alive, and are then thrown overboard to drown or bleed to death.
This is the cruel practice known as ‘shark finning’ and it is devastating shark populations — arguably one of the most important species on Earth — with some populations having declined by more than 80%.
Is it any wonder that more than 140 shark species are now listed as threatened or near-threatened? Or that all 14 of the most-targeted shark species for the fin trade can be found on that threatened list?
The fins are far more valuable than the remainder of the animal, so by discarding the carcass, fishing vessels save space onboard to stockpile a greater amount of the valuable ‘commodity’ without having to deal with the rest of the shark. What amounts to a matter of profit for some is a recipe for extinction for sharks.
What troubles me, as a Canadian, is that our country is actively playing a role in their plummeting numbers.
Although shark finning has been banned in Canada since 1994, the importation of shark fins continues to be permitted. In 2015 alone, Canada imported over 144,000 kilograms of shark fin, a 36% increase since 2012.
That’s why I introduced Bill S-238, the Ban on Shark Fin Importation Act, proposing to make it illegal to bring into Canada shark fins that are not attached to a carcass.
Sharks have been swimming in our oceans for at least 420 million years. They predate the dinosaurs by 150 million years and, as apex predators, they play a most critical role in maintaining the health of our oceans, the home of 80% of all life on earth.
To make matters worse, despite their longevity, sharks are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of their slow maturation and reproductive rates.
Yet, because the carnage caused by the shark-fin industry is left on the bottom of the ocean, out of sight and away from social consciousness, creating awareness of this barbaric industry has been a slow process.
Historically, shark fin soup was a rarity — only available to the wealthy upper class of some Asian cultures. Today, however, as a sign of social status, shark fin soup is now regularly served at weddings and banquets of a wealthier and rapidly expanding middle class.
Shark fins provide virtually no flavour to the dish, adding only minor texture, and any misconceptions that the animal’s products contain medicinal properties have been disproven by modern science. In fact, sharks have been found to contain high levels of methylmercury, a neurotoxin that is dangerous to humans.
Although Canada is a relatively small player in the market compared to Hong Kong and mainland China, Canada is the largest importer of shark fins outside East Asia, according to the United Nations.
I believe Canadians expect those that govern us to do better in protecting and preserving our wildlife.
Support for S-238 continues to grow, with numerous organizations having indicated their support, as well as the City of Toronto, Canada’s largest municipality, thanks to a motion adopted by its city council.
I am also deeply honoured to have the support of the family of the late Canadian filmmaker, Rob Stewart, director of the award-winning documentary, Sharkwater.
A petition on change.org to support the Bill has also quickly garnered over 15,000 signatures.
This came as no surprise to me, as a 2013 poll conducted by Environics found that 81% of Canadians support a ban on shark fin imports.
Clearly, Canadians are in broad agreement that shark finning is an inhumane, wasteful and unacceptable practice.
Ending the importation of detached shark fins into Canada is the only way to ensure Canada does not support the practice.
It is unacceptable that Canada itself prohibits the practice of shark-finning, while allowing the importation of fins that in all likelihood are sourced from shark finning. It’s simply inconsistent.
That is irresponsible and offensive, and it is time for Canada to step up.
Michael L. MacDonald is a senator representing Nova Scotia. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, as well as deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.
This article appeared in the May 23, 2017 edition of the Hill Times.