VANCOUVER - A Vancouver City councillor's quest to ban the sale of the traditional Asian delicacy of shark fins has prompted a food fight with those who say such a ban is "culturally insensitive."

Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang brought dried shark fins from his mother's closet to city hall on Tuesday to illustrate the deep traditional hold the shark fin has on Chinese-Canadian culture. The fins had probably been in her closet for decades, Jang said.

City council voted unanimously to start work on what could become a region-wide ban on the sale of shark fin.

Jang called the vote a huge cultural and environmental step forward.

"This is something that affects all of us, not just one single culture," Jang said. "I think we've really turned the corner on this issue. People are understanding the reasons why. They understand it's an ethical issue and it's not an attack on any one culture."

But David Chung, a restaurateur and head of the B.C. Asian Restaurant and Cafe Owners Association in nearby Richmond, B.C., vowed to fight any ban and is already working on a petition.

People should have a right to choose the food they eat, he said.

He vowed to organize protests and even take legal action if a ban is imposed.

"If the petition doesn't work, we'll demonstrate, if demonstrations don't work we'll go to legal action."

Chung said all the products he serves come with a certificate of origin and are inspected by government officials. None is obtained through the process of finning —where the fins are cut from the shark and the animal is thrown back in the water to die, he said.

He said a ban would be "culturally insensitive."

"When you thank somebody who has done you a favour, you want to show them your appreciation, you don't treat them to sweet and sour pork . . . because that's not enough to demonstrate your sincerity," he said.

"So you treat them to something better, more expensive. So shark fin soup is one of those items."

Jang agreed that in the Chinese-Canadian culture, much significance is put on shark fins.

"Really, it's a way of showing respect, because it's hard to get and it's difficult and it's expensive."

Animals rights groups immediately hailed the vote as historic, saying it will eliminate a huge market for the Asian delicacy and help save sharks from extinction.

Council voted to instruct city staff to approach the neighbouring Metro Vancouver cities of Burnaby and Richmond to work on a joint plan to stop shark fin sales and trade.

"A prohibition on shark fin trade in Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby will be a monumental step forward in saving countless sharks from the cruel and ecologically devastating practice of shark finning," said Gabriel Wildgen, of Humane Society International, Canada.

Jang, who introduced the motion, said he expects three councils to receive reports and recommendations on the proposed shark fin ban within the next eight to 12 months.

He noted that, like his mother, a lot of people in Vancouver own shark fin.

"They got it through purely innocent means as a wedding gift or something like that," he said.

"We're not saying to people if you possess it, you're evil and bad. . .We're just saying it's the future sales and trade. There are other alternatives."

Jang said the issue isn't one of tradition or race.

"It's an ethical issue. You just can't wipe out a species."

Jang said he'll be in Victoria next week at the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention to support a motion that seeks a provincewide ban on the possession, sale and distribution of shark fin.

International animal rights groups estimate that up to 73 million sharks are killed each year, mostly for their fins. The groups say sharks are dumped back into the world's oceans after their fins are cut off, leaving them to die slow and painful deaths.

The Metro Vancouver communities of Coquitlam, Port Moody, North Vancouver City and Maple Ridge already support bans on shark fin sales.

Six cities in Ontario have shark fin bans, including Toronto. The states of Washington, California, Oregon, Illinois and Hawaii also ban shark fins.

North Vancouver City Coun. Craig Keating said UBCM delegates who represent the province's cities, towns and villages will be asked to support a provincewide shark fin ban that says "shark fin harvesting is an inhumane and wasteful practice serving a very narrow and sometimes criminal marketplace."

Keating said he was convinced the shark-fin market threatens the survival of the shark species and impacts the future of other species.

The UBCM motion also calls on the federal government to ban the import of shark fins into Canada.

--By Dirk Meissner, with files from Keven Drews.

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