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Canada Lags Behind In Battle To Save Sharks and Protect the Ocean

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Thomas Kokta via Getty Images
Thomas Kokta via Getty Images

Almost everyone who has seen the gruesome videos of sharks having their fins cut off and their mutilated bodies dumped back into the ocean, barely alive but doomed to drown, is outraged by this barbaric practice. Even more so upon learning that there is no nutritional value in shark fin soup or any shark fin products.

Despite their fearsome (and largely undeserved) reputation as merciless killers, such brutal and unsustainable fishing tactics have garnered worldwide support for bans on the sale and trade of shark fins. Even survivors of shark attacks have joined together to put pressure on governments to end the slaughter.

On a recent expedition my brother and I took to the remote Cocos Island, Costa Rica, we were elated to see first-hand the vital role sharks play in a healthy reef ecosystem. One might assume that the more sharks you have, the less overall fish will be present, but in fact the opposite is true. The most counter-intuitive thing about being surrounded by 200 hammerhead sharks is the sheer abundance of all the other species of fish.

By picking off the oldest, slowest and weakest fish, sharks help maintain populations of marine species all the way down to the bottom of the food chain. Sharks have been around for over 450 million years, longer than trees, so it is no surprise that they help regulate entire marine ecosystems.

Thankfully, the demand for shark fin soup in China has recently begun to decline. The governments of China, Hong Kong and Malaysia have banned shark fin soup at government banquets and 24 airlines, three shipping lines and five hotel chains that all operate in China have officially banned shark fins from their operations.

PSA's featuring celebrities like Yao Ming, Jackie Chan and David Beckham have been instrumental in raising awareness in China about the serious threat the vast consumption of shark fin soup poses to both shark populations and marine ecosystems. As a result, local prices and sales of shark fin have fallen by 50-70 per cent. Global trade has also been reduced by over 25 per cent in the last decade.

This is encouraging, but some scientists fear that the effort to sway public opinions about shark fin soup is not happening fast enough to ensure the survival of many shark species.

Global shark populations have already declined by over 90 per cent and at least 100 million sharks continue to be killed every year, with at least 73 million of them solely for their fins. As a result, one-third of the 1,200 shark species are now threatened with extinction.

Many species of sharks have very few offspring and often don't reach sexual maturity until they are ten or 20 years old, so they take very long to recover from over-fishing. With China's middle-class population well over 350 million people, it could take decades before demand for shark fins is reduced to a remotely sustainable level.

Protecting sharks requires a global response, well beyond simple bans on shark finning. We need to get much better at protecting and managing marine ecosystems as a whole and making it more difficult for destructive or illegal fishing to occur in the first place.

So far, only three percent of the global ocean is officially protected, compared to over 15 per cent on land. We must ramp up the establishment of marine protected areas (or MPA's) to protect vital migratory routes and ensure that funding is available to enforce new fishing regulations.

It's easy to point fingers at China for causing this problem, but Canadians must not forget that we are no strangers to wiping out entire fish populations.

China protects only 1.6-per-cent of its ocean with marine parks, but they are still doing better than Canada at 1.3-per-cent. Meanwhile, both Australia and the US protect over 30 per cent of their ocean territory and the UK recently created the world's largest marine reserve.

While the Chinese government banned shark fin soup from official banquets, one Canadian MP proudly ate a bowl of it at a news conference in 2012 to support restaurant owners here who want to keep shark fins on menus. Although shark finning is illegal in Canada, it's strangely still legal to import shark fins. A bill proposing to ban these imports was defeated in Parliament in 2013.

Although the future of sharks largely rests in the hands of China, Canadians can do more to protect sharks here at home. Our waters hold 28 shark species and studies suggest that domestic shark populations have drastically declined in the last 30 years.

Although shark finning is not legal here, countless sharks are still killed as bycatch each year in tuna, swordfish and groundfish fisheries on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Conservation efforts have improved recently, but let's make Canada a global leader in marine conservation and in protecting sharks. What's good for sharks is good for the entire ocean.

Alex Mifflin and brother Tyler Mifflin host the award-winning eco-adventure series, The Water Brothers, exploring the world's most important water stories. The third season airs Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m. from April 7 to May 19 on TVO and at www.thewaterbrothers.ca. Learn more about shark conservation in "Last Home of the Giants," the next episode of The Water Brothers airing April 7.

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