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Is Banning Shark Fin An Equitable Way To Protect Sharks?

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City councillors in Toronto voted overwhelmingly last year to ban the possession, sale and consumption of shark fin, making Canada's largest city a shark-fin free zone. Those in support of the ban argued that sharks are killed inhumanely and often thrown into the ocean alive after their fins are cut off, a process called "shark finning."

It was only a matter of time before the debate was brought to Vancouver. So when Vancouver city council voted unanimously in September to start working on a ban on the sale and trade of shark fin products in Metro Vancouver, the media was awash with arguments from those advocating a ban and from those opposing it.

This topic has generated so much debate that just mentioning shark fin can turn a casual conversation at a pleasant dinner party into a heated argument. The same topic has also divided opinions in major shark fin consuming countries in Asia.

Much of the debate focuses on "shark finning" because without the fins, sharks starve to death and they are eaten alive by other fish, or they drown because their gills cannot extract oxygen from the water if they cannot swim. This practice has actually been banned in many countries such as Australia, and Canada and the U.S. since 2005.

Some organizations are campaigning for a global ban on shark finning and will require all sharks caught to land intact -- their fins must not be removed while the boat is at sea. Many commercial fishing vessels will, as normal practice, retain the entire shark body as it has many uses. Shark cartilage and shark liver oil are used in dietary supplements, and its leather, also known as Shagreen, is used in wallets, shoes, furniture and other leather products.

So, is the issue about the way that sharks are killed and left to die, or is it about the killing of sharks? If the debate is about stopping the killing of sharks, I can understand why a ban on shark fin and all shark products is appropriate.

If it is about the inhumane treatment of sharks, is a ban on shark fin soup an equitable course of action? Shouldn't we go after those unscrupulous operators who engage in illegal activities to chase fast profits? What will happen to the livelihood of fishermen who treat the carcass properly and what do we do with the large number of sharks that are killed as by-catch in commercial fishing?

USED IN CHINESE CUISINE

Shark fin has been used in Chinese cuisine for hundreds of years, dating back to the Ming Dynasty. It is most commonly served as a soup at wedding and birthday banquets. There are many species of sharks, some more sought after than others and they demand a premium.

A lot has been written about the taste, nutritional value, or the lack of, as arguments supporting and opposing the ban. Some critics label the eating of shark fin as barbaric and uncivilized. This may be as misguided as rejecting chicken feet just because someone doesn't eat them or can't even bear the thought of someone else eating them. Either way, I think this is a personal preference and it is impossible to win an argument about personal choices.

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One compelling piece of evidence that neither side disputes is the fact that the world's shark population has plummeted to such a low level that some species of shark are facing extinction. But other fish such as bluefin tuna are also facing the same peril caused by overfishing. In fact, bluefin tuna are the most valuable fish in the world, worth commercially more than any species of shark and coveted for their fatty belly meat used in sushi.

If the solution to the shark conservation issue is a wholesale ban of shark fin consumption -- regardless of the type of sharks or how they are caught or used -- shouldn't we consider banning tuna in sandwiches and sushi as well? Is the life of a tuna worth less than that of a shark? Will the legislators still advocate a ban to protect a species if it is a food that they eat?

MAKING INFORMED DECISIONS

With the advance in GPS, internet and wireless technology, it is possible to trace and record where, when and how a catch of fish was caught, who handled and processed it, all the way to the consumers who buy it in a store or order it in a restaurant. With this information, consumers can make an informed decision about the choices they make and the impact of their choices on the environment.

I believe the key lies in educating the public about the dwindling ocean resources, banning illegal fishing practices, working with governments to regulate global shark fin trade and implementing a licensing or quota system that will also benefit other species such as bluefin tuna that is on the brink of extinction.

Canada is in a unique position as many Canadians of Asian background still maintain close ties with their home country. The amount of shark fin consumed in Canada, even North America, is a drop in the ocean, compared to what is consumed in Asia. Banning shark fin in Canada will not help conserve the world's declining shark population; it will also take us out of the loop of influencing our Asian neighbours in regulating shark fin trade and implementing best fishing practice in the world.

Like many people who are concerned about the state of the environment, I wouldn't be too bothered if I was told I couldn't have another bowl of shark fin soup ever again, as I don't even remember the last time I had it. Any effective measures that protect our valuable ocean resources and ensure that we have a sustainable source of seafood for future generations will get my vote. My only concern is whether those measures are fair and equitable, and help conservation efforts in the long run.

The Chinese version of this blog is posted on Kim's website.