Is now the time to demand a ban on shark fin soup?
By Brittney MacDonald, Staff Writer
The Fraser Valley has been battling with the issue of banning shark fin soup for its role in animal endangerment, as well as accusations of cruelty and irresponsible fishing practices for several years. The legality of the delicacy has fluctuated as the municipal governments of Vancouver, Richmond, and Burnaby passed bylaws that have since then been repealed or amended, in part due to the difficulty of enforcing the ban. With the upcoming elections taking place on November 15, many activists are now asking for a final call to action—one that will end the sale of shark fin soup once and for all.
For people unfamiliar with the controversy, shark fin soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Because of its rather hefty price tag, shark fin is considered a luxury item often reserved for weddings and other special occasions. Shark fin mainly consists of cartilage, meaning that it doesn’t have much flavour of its own and no nutritional value, and the texture can be easily simulated by using cartilage from other, more abundant animals. Hence, the use of real shark fin in the soup is considered by many to be merely a status symbol, or simply to preserve tradition.
In a statement made to the Vancouver press in February 2013, then Burnaby councillor Sav Dhaliwal, who was also the advocate for the Vancouver Animal Defense League and the banning of shark fin soup, stated “If this was a practice where the whole animal was used and used on a sustainable basis, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue … The way it is used now, it is a ceremonial and non-nutritional use of the food—it is a clear waste and we are against that.”
The problem is that the demand for shark fins supports a market that has been criticized not only for its irresponsible fishing practices from an ecological standpoint, but also for the cruelty of the butchering practices themselves.
“Shark finning” consists of the fishermen removing all of the shark’s fins and then throwing the body overboard, often while the animal is still alive. Many of the modern shark species breathe through a technique known as “ram ventilation,” which requires a shark to swim quickly in order to force water into the gills. This differs from other fish species that have developed muscles to pump water over the gills, allowing them to collect the oxygen they need to survive. This means that some sharks cannot survive if they cannot swim, and will essentially drown if stationary for too long. By not killing the sharks, fishermen are prolonging their suffering.
Because of the high demand for shark fins, the relative ease with which it can be obtained, and the payout involved, finning is an attractive option for any seafarer looking to make a few quick bucks. Due to this, and the fact sharks don’t breed very quickly, finning has led to a genus-wide population decline. In 2012, tests done by the Vancouver Animal Defense League reported that 76 per cent of the shark fin soup samples they purchased from Vancouver-based stores were from shark species that were classified as endangered or vulnerable (close to being on the endangered species list).
Having grown up in a family devoted to ocean conservation, my mother and I jumped at the chance to ask Rob Stewart—fellow Canadian and director of the award winning documentary Sharkwater—what could be done besides just boycotting establishments that sell shark fin soup.
He said, “Do not despair. We were only five votes away from getting a ban on shark fins across Canada [a bill demanding a Canada-wide ban on shark fins was turned down in 2013]. Now is exactly the time to put more pressure on, not remove it. Eighty-one per cent of Canadians [according to a 2013 poll] think that there should be a ban on shark fins, so it will happen. We just need to put enough pressure on the government.”
Stewart’s advice seems especially poignant now that Vancouver, Burnaby, and Richmond are all facing municipal elections. Perhaps some new blood will prove to be a cure for complacency, and a little bit of public outcry may encourage our new mayoral offices to take some initiative and not be so intimidated with the prospect of enforcing a city-wide ban.
Nonetheless, a ban might be the only solution: in an interview with CTV News, Kerry Jang, a former Vancouver city councillor stated that a ban across all three cities would be required to make it effective, and I would have to agree. In the words of Jang “… we’re going to have to do it simultaneously because it’s too easy to drive across one bridge to get [shark fin soup] in Richmond.”