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Canada has become the first country in the world to ban the import and export of shark fins.

The move comes as the Senate voted for a second and final time Tuesday night in favour of an amended Bill C-68, the government’s overhaul of the Fisheries Act.

“This is a landmark moment for sharks. It’s an incredible victory for them,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada.

“As the first country in the world that has banned the trade in sharks, Canada has set a precedent I’m hoping many countries will follow.”

The shark fin provisions were originally introduced in the Senate by Conservative Sen. Michael McDonald in April 2017 as part of Bill S-238. It passed on its own in the red chamber with strong support and was sponsored in the House of Commons by MP Fin Donnelly. The NDP member had introduced similar shark fin legislation in the past that was narrowly defeated. In all, there have been five private member's bills since 2011 to try to ban the shark fin trade in Canada.

“In that time, over half a billion sharks have been butchered and killed for their fins,” Donnelly told the House in February.

Dried shark fins for sale are lined up on shelves in this undated image. Photo by Iris Ho / HSI

Last month, with time running out in this Parliamentary session, Sen. Peter Harder proposed amendments to C-68 to include S-238’s shark-trade provisions to ensure the legislative measures came into force. At the same time provisions from S-203, a bill to ban whale, porpoise and dolphin captivity in Canada, were also rolled in. That legislation passed in the House of Commons last week.

Shark finning has been banned in Canada since 1994. However, since then it has been legal to import fins — and demand for them here has been rising. Last year, Canada imported more than 148,000 kilograms of shark fins, the majority of which went into shark fin soup. Most came from Hong Kong and China, and were likely from finning. Canada is the largest importer of fins in the world, outside of East Asia.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine the suffering of sharks (involved) in the shark fin trade,” Aldworth said. “They are impaled on metal hooks, dragged onto bloody boat decks where their fins are sliced off and, while still conscious, they are tossed into the ocean. They sink to the bottom, bleeding out and suffocating slowly, as they can’t get oxygen if they don’t swim.”

C-68 now entrenches Canada’s ban on finning in legislation and captures a full range of shark products beyond the fins themselves. It also does away with the patchwork approach that stemmed from municipalities passing their own shark product bylaws.

Swan song for NDP MP

For Donnelly, it’s a rewarding outcome after eight years of work.

“Finally, we have a government willing to recognize that Canada can be a leader in shark preservation and ocean health,” he said, crediting Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson for agreeing to roll this into Fisheries Act overhaul.

“Previous Parliaments wouldn’t do it, so it’s very exciting that Canada is now setting a precedent and taking a bold step, making it known that we feel this important. Canadians want to be part of the solution.”

The ban comes in Donnelly’s final stretch as an MP, as he won’t be running in the upcoming election.

“It definitely feels good. It’s been a culmination of a team effort across party lines and with people across the country, but it’s really nice to end a career in federal politics with this win,” he said.

Sharkwater filmmaker's family celebrates

The family of Rob Stewart has been a strong proponent of the bill. The Canadian biologist and filmmaker brought the plight of sharks to the big screen, and the world’s attention, with his award-winning film Sharkwater.

He was filming a followup movie to the documentary, called Sharkwater Extinction, when he died in January 2017.

Last night, Brian and Sandy Stewart were ecstatic.

“It’s been 19 years since Robbie started this journey in 2000,” Brian Stewart said. “It was 2007 when the movie hit and that’s when the rest of the world jumped on board. So many people galvanized around this. The support has been extraordinary. I know Robbie’s looking down, saying ‘Canada first.’ He was Canadian and he was so proud of it.”

He gave particular credit to MacDonald and Donnelly for fighting for this for years.

“I think there were times we wondered how to make it happen, as there were so many obstacles in the way. It was so easy to give up, so easy to say enough, but these guys fought on,” Stewart said. “That’s why we had to be here today.”

Sandy Stewart believes other countries will now follow. Earlier this year, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress, which would ban the buying and selling of shark fins in the United States. She hopes this puts pressure on its passage.

“This is a message to the world that sharks matter,” she said. “Rob believed everybody had it in them to change the world, to step up and protect a species that they loved. He had a saying: you take what you’re good at, you take what you love and you smash them together and save something.”

Brian Stewart said even though it’s been more than two years since their son died, they still get emails from children around the world who tell them Rob has inspired them. There are also 90 FinFree chapters around the world that have taken up sharks’ cause.

“(This bill passing) is huge encouragement for them. They’ve all been reignited with the belief that they can make changes in their countries. That’s really what you want to see so they can fight with their governments to stop shark finning and keep sharks alive,” he said. “People have to understand we need these apex predators in the ocean — and most people don’t.”

The importance of sharks to the ecosystem

At committee, witnesses told senators that an estimated 100 million sharks are killed to satisfy global demand for fins. Because they are slow to mature and reproduce, sharks are more vulnerable than other species, and are being caught an estimated 30 times faster than they can reproduce.

As apex predators, sharks are critical to ocean health by keeping ecosystems in balance. They remove the sick and weak from the marine ecosystem, keep fish populations in check, prey on invasive species and help coral reefs thrive.

As upwards of 70 per cent of the oxygen on land comes from the sea, it means the well-being of humans is directly tied to the well-being of sharks. However, the last 50 years have seen some shark species decline more than 80 per cent as a result of finning, overfishing and bycatch.

Senators were told about DNA testing conducted by the University of Guelph on shark fins sold in Vancouver, which found that of the 59 shark fin samples, 76 per cent were from shark species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of vulnerable species.

'We have more work to do'

To date, passing any animal-related bill has been a challenge in Canada. But Donnelly said that with so many issues stemming from climate change and over-harvesting, it’s going to be increasingly important that governments pass legislation focused on ecosystem health, given how connected everything is.

“I think this is a pivotal time, not just for Canada, but all global economies. You have to do things differently if (oceans and tackling climate change) are important. The challenges are great. I’m not saying at all it’s going to be easy — I know it’s going to be tough — but I also know Canadians have the ingenuity to get things done. We just need the political leadership to point in that direction.”

For the Stewarts, the focus now is getting shark out of other products — most of which people aren’t aware of.

“This was a huge first step, but we know it’s in cosmetics, fertilizers, pet food and fish farming feed. So now we have more work to do,” Brian Stewart said.

The passing of C-68 also marked a major overhaul of one of Canada’s oldest laws. For the first time since it was enacted in 1868, the Fisheries Act will now direct the minister of fisheries and oceans to put rebuilding plans in place for depleted stocks and to manage stocks sustainably.

While the bill restores protections that were gutted by the Conservatives in 2012, specifically around habitat, it goes beyond that, as well as what was contained in the minister’s mandate letter. With its directives on management for abundance and rebuilding stocks to healthy levels, proponents say Canada has moved closer to the kind of modern fisheries management laws that other leading fishing nations have in place.

Prior to 2012, C-68 protected all fish and fish habitat in Canada. But in a move to make life easier for farmers, and spare them having to navigate red tape to alter what they deemed to be insignificant bodies of water on their land, the Harper government introduced omnibus legislation that did away with a prohibition against the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.”

Once those changes were in place, only fish that were part of commercial, recreational or Indigenous fisheries had any protection under the law.

In a statement, Oceana Canada said the overhaul sets the stage for rebuilding fish abundance in Canada’s oceans and unlocks tremendous potential for renewed ocean health.

“(This) has the potential to be one of the most transformative things that has happened for our oceans in many years,” executive director Josh Laughren said.

He noted that around the world the catalyst for fisheries recovery has been a legally binding requirement to rebuild fish populations and prevent them from becoming depleted.

“The United States has some of the most stringent and effective legislation in the world mandating fisheries rebuilding,” Laughren said. “It has successfully rebuilt a total of 45 fish stocks resulting in more resilient ecosystems and greater economic opportunities for the fishing industry.”

Only 34 per cent of fish populations in Canada are healthy and more than 13 per cent are critically depleted. Of 26 critically depleted stocks, only five have rebuilding plans. With the new requirement for rebuilding plans, this should start to turn the tide.

The legislation also includes provisions for enhanced regulation and enforcement, increased monitoring and reporting, as well as more certainty and clarity of requirements for development projects. The minister must also consider the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples when making certain decisions, specifically those involving fish and fish habitat.

At the Fisheries Council of Canada, president Paul Lansbergen said he’s counted at least 15 new regulatory instruments authorized by the bill, so that’s where the meat on the bones will eventually be found. He said it could mark “an unprecedented period of regulatory change” for the industry and all stakeholders affected by the legislation.

While Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been consulting on some of them, he said it’s going to take the department years to implement them all. And with other efforts already underway to modernize regulations, which was a priority in the last federal budget, he’s concerned DFO won’t have the capacity for all the change that’s afoot.

That means the industry may have to live with irritants and barriers to innovation even longer, such as delays in implementing the new gear or lights that other jurisdictions use to reduce bycatch.

“Some of these innovations will allow us to be more efficient and competitive, but also allow us to reduce environmental impact.”

However, he welcomed requirements for DFO to keep pace with fish stocks that are under stress.

“Ultimately I think that’s going to be a good thing for sustainable fisheries management in Canada.”

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