Shark fin bans across Canada praised, challenged
A worker cuts a shark fin at a fish market in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. (AP / Kamran Jebreili)
Published Saturday, August 18, 2012 7:00AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, August 18, 2012 4:15PM EDT
When Kerry Jang got married 18 years ago, his wedding guests dined on shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy his family served for generations to mark special occasions.
Now, the Vancouver city councillor is spearheading efforts to remove the pricey item from restaurant menus and banquets.
Jang is proposing that Vancouver and its neighbouring municipalities, Richmond and Burnaby, simultaneously introduce a shark fin ban, joining Canadian cities like Toronto and Nainamo, B.C., and several U.S. states, including California, Oregon and Hawaii.
Shark fin soup, a symbol of wealth and prestige in Chinese culture for centuries, has in recent years become more synonymous with controversial fishing practices blamed for a worldwide shark population decline.
Environmental scientists and wildlife groups have been calling for an end to shark finning, which involves slicing off the fins of captured sharks before tossing them back in the water. One group of researchers determined that between 26 and 73 million sharks were killed yearly from 1996 to 2000.
Increased awareness of endangered shark species has prompted some countries, including Honduras and the Bahamas, to ban commercial shark fishing altogether.
In recent years, numerous local and state bans on shark fin products have been introduced in parts of North America, and even China has declared it will stop serving shark fin soup at official banquets over the next three years.
“It’s the perfect time to strike,” Jang said in an interview with CTVNews.ca this week.
“We’ve always advocated for a regional ban. The three cities, Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby, all have restaurants that serve shark products,” he said. “If we’re going to make this thing effective, 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.”
Jang said he will introduce a motion at a Vancouver city council meeting next month to formalize talks between the municipalities and study the most effective ways of implementing a shark fin ban.
But despite a global shark conservation movement, local shark fin bans are being met with resistance. The City of Toronto is facing a lawsuit over its ban on possession, sale and consumption of shark fin products, and there are talks of possible anti-ban demonstrations in the Vancouver area.
Jang said he’s received just “a little pushback” from the community, save for some vocal opponents.
“It really seems to be a generational issue,” Jang said. “The younger generations are clearly opting out -- they have no interest in (shark fin soup). It’s more for the older folks who are insisting on it to prove wealth or to impress guests for business deals and things like that.”
A bowl of shark fin soup can cost as much as $200, depending on the amount and type of fin used. Shark fin itself is relatively tasteless. It serves to provide texture, while other ingredients in the soup bring out its unique flavour.
“I think people all secretly agree on a ban, but they are a little scared of their elders,” Jang said.
David Chung, a Richmond restaurant owner and president of the B.C. Asian Restaurant and Cafe Owners’ Association, said the proposed ban is based on “misconceptions” about Chinese culture and area politicians’ lack of knowledge about global shark consumption.
The federal government, not municipalities, should be looking at scientific data to determine whether a countrywide shark fin ban is appropriate, Chung said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
He said shark fin consumption is part of the natural food chain process that actually helps fish populations thrive because it keeps the number of predators in check.
Anthony Marr, of the Vancouver Animal Defence League, said that argument has been disputed by reputable studies showing a link between the culinary use of shark fin and the endangerment of shark species.
“The situation is extremely dire. I would call this a shark emergency,” Marr said.
Canada, which prohibits shark finning, has a heavily regulated shark fishing and trade industry. NDP fisheries critic Fin Donnelly and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May have each introduced private member's bills that would ban imports and trade of shark fins.
But in the developing world, shark fishing and fin harvesting is a multi-million dollar industry and destroying it would put thousands of people out of jobs, Chung said.
Ultimately, “we should have the right to eat what we want,” he said, adding that councillors who’ve come out in favour of a shark fin ban are “just trying to score political points.”
Toronto ban challenged in court
Not all Vancouver-area politicians are ready to support an outright ban; some are cautiously watching how other municipalities are dealing with the issue.
The opposition to Toronto’s shark fin ban, set to take effect Sept. 1, has resulted in a lawsuit against the city which argues that council exceeded its authority when it passed the bylaw.
The suit was filed in late July by the Fair and Responsible Governance Alliance, a non-profit group of volunteers from the area’s Chinese community, said Kai Tao, a member of FARGA’s legal committee.
Chinese community leaders support the preservation of endangered shark species and worldwide action against illegal shark catching and finning, Tao said.
But the shark fin used by local restaurateurs and caterers was always legally obtained -- no different than shark products used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, he said.
“We are being singled out,” Tao told CTVNews.ca. “The city is attacking our way of life…and this is getting ridiculous.”
Shark fin products are also banned in other Ontario municipalities, including Mississauga, Oakville and Brantford.
When Toronto council passed the shark fin ban last fall, members of the Chinese community and Chinatown businesses received racist letters, including some that threatened to poison food in stores and restaurants.
As the bylaw comes into effect, “we’re asking the community to cool down,” Tao said.
“We believe in the justice system and have faith that it will work for us.”
The Toronto lawsuit has Richmond City Coun. Chak Au worried.
“I think we have to consider all the factors and take a balanced approach,” he told CTVNews.ca, noting that Richmond, Burnaby and Vancouver councils don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on the issue.
It’s an “overstatement” that the three municipalities are poised to enact a region-wide ban within a year, he said. Richmond city council hasn’t held any formal talks and is waiting on a December report from city staff on the impacts of a shark fin ban before any action is taken, he said.
“I am more in favour of education,” said Au, who stopped consuming shark fin three years ago after reading about endangered shark species.
“If you use a law to stop a behaviour, the behaviour might stop, but people may not change their thinking. But we see the impacts of education.”
Shark fin soup consumption is already on the decline, Au said, and it’s not as culturally significant for younger Chinese-Canadians. That’s reflected in softening sales of shark fin products over the last few years, he said.
Jang, the Vancouver councillor, said he’s talked to several Chinese restaurant owners who say a shark fin ban won’t harm their businesses because they don’t sell as much shark fin soup as they used to.
Even at his wedding nearly two decades ago, “no one gave a care about the soup,” Jang said.
“What they were impressed by, and are still talking about 18 long years later, is the fact that I had an open bar.”