Canada Moves to Protect Sharks

Canada Moves to Protect Sharks

As published in the Victoria Standard: 31 July 2019

Sharks are making the news, mostly for positive reasons. Recent legislation reinforces a 1994 ban on commercial shark “finning” within Canadian waters by banning the importation of fins for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Shark finning involves the cruel practice of slicing the fins off living sharks before tossing them overboard to die. This legislative change is one of many amendments to the Fisheries Act under Bill C-68 that became law on June 21, 2019.

Last year, Canada imported over 122,000 kilograms of shark fins from China as well as smaller totals from Hong Kong, Trinidad, Tobago and the United States. In spite of Canada’s recent troubles with China over its incarceration of Canadian citizens, the shark fin ban has generated little controversy between the two nations. In fact, China has banned shark fin soup at official state functions and Canadian activist Amy Tam claims that the global anti-finning movement includes many Chinese nationals and Canadians of Asian descent. Tam was involved in a 2012 Toronto municipal shark fin soup ban that was eventually overturned by the courts on the basis of “potential cultural discrimination.” Since Canada banned finning and the importation of shark fins Tam and her fellow activists have shifted their attention to the global campaign.

Commercial shark fishing remains legal in Canada, although the practice has been largely abandoned. Nonetheless, sharks are sometimes caught as “by catch” during long-line fishing for tuna and other species. The absence of a dedicated Canadian shark fishery offers slim hope for the return of healthy populations since the United Nations estimates that 73 million sharks are harvested yearly for their fins, meat and skin. Since sharks grow slowly and produce few offspring (pups), the UN estimates that commercial harvesting is killing sharks 30 times faster than they can reproduce. The loss of this apex predator exerts a devastating effect on other aquatic species.

In spite of Canadian action on shark finning and the absence of a dedicated commercial shark fishery, these endangered animals enjoy limited protection in U.S. waters. Specialized shark sanctuaries do exist in American tropical waters but it is mainly open season on sharks like the porbeagle since American authorities disagree with Canada’s stance on the endangered status of many sharks. Canadian marine biologists engaged in shark research often witness American commercial fishers harvesting and butchering endangered sharks on the U.S. side of the long ocean border. While finning is popularly considered the greatest threat to sharks, over-fishing and inadequate regulations and enforcement are the major causes of global shark species depletion.

Nova Scotia’s sport shark fishery has run August tournaments on Cape Breton and the south shore since the mid-1990s. These anglers catch mostly blue sharks and the occasional mako, a larger and more aggressive species that occasionally attacks humans. According to a DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) spokesperson, the federal department depends on the sport fishery’s blue shark catch for research concerning that shark’s reproduction rates, maturity, population and range. The sport anglers measure, tag and release the majority of sharks caught although some are retained and given to wildlife parks for animal food.

DFO also cooperates with the commercial fishing industry to utilize blue shark by-catch for research purposes by placing monitoring personnel on-board. DFO has no contingency plan to conduct independent shark research in the event of a ban on sport shark fishing or commercial long-lining. Presumably, the department might resort to enhanced research-sharing arrangements with other marine nations although such a policy would reduce Canada’s scientific independence.

No shark article is complete without mention of the great white shark, a frequent visitor to Nova Scotia waters long demonized by the Jaws movies. There are no records of great whites attacking humans in Maritime waters but the presence of these huge predators is a safety consideration for scuba-divers, boogie-boarders and surfers. While swimming Baddeck Harbour as a youth, I often imagined a toothy giant entering the Great Bras’ dor Channel. That sense of vulnerability taught me respect for deep salt water and its more dangerous inhabitants. After all, humans are mere guests in the shark’s world.