• Kim Elmslie, Campaign Director, Oceana Canada with MP Fin Donnelly

    Kim Elmslie, Campaign Director with Oceana Canada, and MP Fin Donnelly celebrate Canada’s ban on shark fin importation and exportation. Donnelly has been a leading voice in the fight for a ban on the trade, which sees some 73 million sharks killed for their fins each year. (Photo: Oceana Canada)

In a move ocean advocates are calling a “victory” for sharks, Canada has approved a long-awaited ban on the import and export of shark fins.

The ban is part of a raft of changes to the Fisheries Act, the legislation that regulates all fishing and fish habitat in Canada, which passed the Senate on Tuesday. The bill outlining the changes, C-68, must now receive royal assent before it becomes law.

At a press conference in Toronto Thursday, Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson thanked the politicians and activists who have worked — in some cases for decades — to bring the practise of shark finning to the attention of the public and press for change. Chief among them was late Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, whose Sharkwater films drew worldwide attention to the crisis of illegal shark fishing, and who died in a diving accident in 2017 while filming Sharkwater: Extinction.

Some 73 million sharks are killed for their fins each year to satisfy global demand for shark fin soup. One third of fins sold in the global marketplace come from shark species that are considered at risk or facing extinction. In most cases, the sharks have their fins cut off at sea, while they are still alive, and are left to drown or bleed to death. The loss of these apex predators throws other ocean ecosystems out of balance.

Speaking in front of a mural painted in memory of Stewart in a parking lot near the Royal Ontario Museum, Wilkinson said Canada recognizes the “clear threat” shark finning poses to the sustainability of the world’s oceans.

“The practise is simply not sustainable, and it’s inhumane. Canada will not play a part in supporting the practise of shark finning, or the trade in unattached fins.”

Stewart’s parents, Sandy and Brian, also spoke at the press conference, and singled out Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, B.C. MP Fin Donnelly and Senator Michael MacDonald for their leadership on the issue. In 2011, Wong-Tam co-sponsored a motion to ban the sale and consumption of shark fins in Toronto. Since then, five private member’s bills have been introduced in the House of Commons proposing to ban trading in shark fins, including a bill by Donnelly that was narrowly defeated in 2013.

In 2017, MacDonald tabled the Senate equivalent of a private member’s bill to raise the issue once again. That bill was in danger of stalling out in the House of Commons ahead of this fall’s federal election when the government decided to copy the language in MacDonald’s bill into C-68, which was further along in the legislative process.

“We’re just absolutely ecstatic,” said Sandy Stewart, who since her son’s death has carried on his work of advocating for sharks and other marine wildlife. “I know Rob is somewhere dancing and sending love to the world in gratitude to everybody who has worked on this issue for so long.”

New hope for depleted fish stocks

The ban on shark fin importation and exportation is one of several significant changes to the Fisheries Act put forward in C-68 that “have the potential to transform how we manage our oceans,” says Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada, which has long advocated for legislation to help rebuild Canada’s depleted fisheries.

The Act will now require the Fisheries Minister to create rebuilding plans for all fish populations considered to be in critical condition, meaning that their total biomass has fallen below 40 per cent of the maximum sustainable yield, or the amount of fish that can be taken from the ocean without compromising the population’s ability to replenish itself. 

In its last annual Fishery Audit, Oceana Canada found that just 34 per cent of Canada’s fish stocks can be considered healthy. Some 13 per cent of stocks are critically depleted, and most of those lack plans to return them to health. Northern cod, the poster child for fishery collapse in Canada, is still in critical condition despite some early signs of recovery.

“The problem is every time they show small signs of increase, we increase the quota for them, so we’re not managing them for growth,” says Laughren. That should change under the amended Act, though Laughren adds that how the new provisions in the Act will be implemented and enforced remains to be seen.

The federal Species at Risk Act similarly requires the government to develop recovery plans for threatened wildlife, but such plans are rarely completed in the timeframe specified in the act, with some species waiting years for protection of their critical habitat. For now, Laughren is optimistic. “The spirit and intention of the Fisheries Act is clear; now we need to make sure we get regulations written that reflect that intent.”

Laughren points out that since the United States passed similar measures in 1996, they have been able to rebuild 45 fisheries that today yield 50 per cent more revenue on average than before they were rebuilt.

“There’s evidence that when you allow stocks to rebuild, they do recover, and they provide more benefits. I think one could argue that had these provisions that are in the Act been in place in the 1980s, we may have avoided the cod collapse in Atlantic Canada, and the history of the region would look a lot different,” says Laughren. “That’s the potential of these provisions to avoid that kind of calamity in the future.”