Toronto bans shark fins – should the rest of Canada follow?

Mississauga did it. Oakville and Brantford did it, and now Canada’s largest city just announced it will do it too. Last night, Toronto City Council voted 38-4 to officially ban shark fin products starting next fall. Could this be the start of a Canada wide ban? Activists certainly hope so – but not everyone is convinced.

The controversial bylaw, which doesn’t take effect until September of 2012, makes it illegal to sell, possess or consume shark fin. Offenders can expect to pay the price — the bylaw comes with fines ranging from $5,000 for a first offence up to $100,000 for the third offence.

Why the ban? If you’re unfamiliar with shark fin, it’s considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine — in fact, it’s almost a status symbol as expensive shark fin soup is often served at feasts or important meals like weddings. Shark fin doesn’t add flavour or nutritional value — that job is left up to other ingredients — but adds a sought-after texture.

The problem isn’t with the fin itself — it isn’t dangerous or poisonous — but rather how it’s harvested. The practice involves catching sharks, cutting off their fins and tossing them back into the ocean still alive. (They don’t remain alive for long) Shark finning has long been protested as wasteful and inhumane, and activists like Rod Stewart (the filmmaker behind the documentary Sharkwater) warn it’s contributing to the decimation of shark populations worldwide. Proponents claim the practice of finning kills about 70 million sharks each year. It’s a profitable venture: one pound of dried shark fin sells for up to $300.

So why the controversy? Not everyone agrees on if — or how — shark fin should be banned in Canada. In fact, protestors took to the streets to oppose the ban before the ban. One of the reasons is money: businesses stand to lose profits if they’re no longer able to serve the delicacy, especially when it’s part of banquet fare. Customers can easily go elsewhere.

Besides, it’s perfectly legal to use other shark products — like eating the meat of the shark or using shark in cosmetics and health products.

Another reason? It could be a legal and logistical nightmare for Toronto to impose the ban. Who will check up on businesses and diners? How will the consequences be enforced?

And those fines? They’re heavier than for possessing drugs, claims Barbara Chiu, executive director of the Toronto Chinese Business Association. She claims the city is treating business owners worse than criminals.

Some critics aren’t arguing the ethics of shark finning, but claim the ban should be handled at the federal rather than municipal level. You could argue that tactic is “passing the buck”, but it’s important to note that issues regarding the fishing industry are the jurisdiction of the federal government.

And at least a handful of city councilors agreed, including Mayor Rob Ford and Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday.

“It’s not our job to police the world’s oceans,” said Holyday in an article in the Globe and Mail. “We have sound legal advice telling us not to do this.”

Like it or not, the ban is in place in Toronto — Canada’s largest market for shark fin — but it could be the start of something bigger. Already, activists across the country are calling for bans in other cities such as Vancouver. However, the mayor of Vancouver warns that such a ban would have to be province wide otherwise it would unfairly punish businesses if customers could simply go to a neighbouring city to enjoy shark fin. (Read more on CBC News.)

It’s a complex issue, and one we’ll likely see in the news for months and years to come. Toronto may not have been the first city to ban shark fin, but it’s sheer size may have other cities and provinces thinking twice — and perhaps the federal government too.


Want to understand both sides of the issue? Read the Toronto Chinese Business Association’s Reasons, Not Emotions, Should Be Used in Shark Fin Vote .

And watch Rod Stewart’s presentation at ideaCity 2009 here:

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Would you support a Canada-wide ban on shark fin? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Photo © George Frandsen