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Honour Rob Stewart's Legacy By Taking Action For Sharks

06/07/2017 04:48 EDT | Updated 06/13/2017 04:30 EDT

For the first time ever, the ocean protection community is commemorating World Oceans Day without one of its biggest champions, Canadian conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart. More than ever though, we are reminded of the movement he inspired with his 2006 film "Sharkwater," to stop the extinction-level crisis facing many shark species.

As Stewart's film and advocacy illuminated for audiences around the globe over the past decade, sharks are disappearing at a rate of tens of millions per year, due in large part to the demand for their fins, which are sold at high prices and served in a bowl of luxury soup. He also revealed with excruciating images the cruelty of the act of shark finning itself: men cutting fins from sharks and throwing them back into the water to die a slow, painful death. Now, the Canadian government can and must follow Stewart's example and make Canada a global leader in ocean ecosystem protection by banning the import of products of shark finning.

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Rob Stewart in Paris, France on March 25, 2008. (Photo: Frederic Souloy/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Conservation and animal protection advocates around the world have made great strides in recent years, due in no small part to Stewart's talent, dedication, and leadership. "Sharkwater" has become a key tool to educate the public and policymakers to institute important protections for sharks. Many viewers across the world now know that, as apex predators in the ocean, sharks play an essential role in keeping marine ecosystems in check, and as some species are nearing extinction, the delicate ecological balance for all ocean life is now threatened.

The results are encouraging so far. Numerous countries have now banned shark finning, eleven U.S. states have banned the trade in shark fins, and so have 17 Canadian municipalities. Dozens of airlines have pledged to refuse shark fins shipments on their flights. Ethical retailers have also partnered with non-profit organizations to launch global campaigns against the shark fin trade. China, the largest importer of shark fins, has banned the use of shark fins at official functions, and demand across the country -- especially among its younger demographics -- is plummeting, due in part to such celebrities as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan publicly campaigning against its use.

Still, no country has prohibited products of shark finning from entering its borders, and Canada is in a great position to become the first to do so. But time is running out for sharks, and our politicians must act quickly to save them. While demand for shark fin soup has fallen in China, since NDP Member of Parliament Fin Donnelly first introduced a Private Member's bill to ban shark fin imports in 2011, Canada's import numbers have increased by more than 30 per cent, from just over 100,000 kilograms per year, to over 140,000 kilograms per year. This despite the fact that more than 81 per cent of Canadians polled by Environics in 2013 were in favour of an import ban.

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Grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) school of fish red-toothed triggerfish (Odonus niger) in blue water, on March 19, 2017 in Indian Ocean. (Photo: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Donnelly's Bill was defeated by a narrow margin of only five votes in 2013, and a more recent bill by Liberal MP Nathanial Erskine-Smith, which would have banned shark fin imports while also updating other animal cruelty laws in Canada, was also defeated just last year. Now, Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald has introduced a new bill very similar to those previous bills. With parliamentarians from all three parties having introduced legislation to protect sharks, it's become clear that putting an end to shark finning is not a partisan issue. The Liberals, who now command a majority in the House of Commons, voted unanimously for Fin Donnelly's bill in 2013, and so it stands to reason that they should be in favour of such a ban today.

But we do not need to wait for Senator MacDonald's bill to work its way through Parliament for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his leaders in government to act. They can and should implement regulations immediately to ban the import of products of shark finning. Anybody who agrees can call on the Canadian government to take this urgently needed action by sending them an email here.

Every World Oceans Day from here on in, we will all remember the difficult truths that Rob Stewart shared with the world before his life was cut short in a tragic scuba diving mishap while filming the important follow up to "Sharkwater." And we will remember the fact that we all have a responsibility, not only to his legacy, but to the fate of sharks and all ocean ecosystems, to do all we can to call on our government to end the trade in products of shark finning.

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