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Canada is a major player in the global shark fin trade, and a recent investigation adds an unnerving detail to the story: the majority of fins for sale in Canada may belong to threatened and endangered species.
The discovery came from a team of activists and researchers that used a mix of undercover sleuthing and cutting-edge DNA analysis to identify exactly which shark species are being sold in Canadian markets.
Globally, finning takes a devastating toll on sharks. Fins from up to 73 million sharks are harvested each year, many through finning, and the majority wind up in China and neighboring Asian countries where they sell for up to US $1,100 per kilogram.
Shark finning is a notoriously cruel and wasteful practice: fishermen haul a shark onto their boat, slice off its fins, and then throw the animal back into the water—oftentimes alive—to either drown or bleed out. Finning is not the only source of shark fins—some come from authorized shark fisheries—but demand for shark fins has contributed to some species declining by more than 90 percent, and to a third of all shark and rays facing extinction.
China is not the only destination for shark fins, however: restaurants throughout Australia, the United Kingdom, and much of the United States legally serve shark fin soup, and the dish can also be found in many countries in Europe.
Yet Canada is considered by some to be the largest importer outside of Asia, making up nearly two percent of the global market. Despite the fact that at least 17 municipalities have banned the sale of shark fins, and a 1994 federal law forbids the practice of finning itself, Canada still imports a huge quantity of shark fins—140,000 kilograms in 2016.
Activists from the Vancouver Animal Defense League and Dirk Steinke, a researcher at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph, made the discovery that many shark fins for sale in Canada belong to imperiled species. The activists visited shops in Vancouver, British Columbia, and purchased 71 dried shark fins, which they sent to Steinke for analysis.
The results were telling. Of the 20 species identified, 16 are considered endangered, threatened, or near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The presence in the samples of one species—whale shark—was particularly striking. Despite the conservation status of the other 15 species, whale shark was the only animal that was clearly illegal. Canadian federal law forbids the trade of only three species of sharks, whale shark being one of them. (The other two are basking sharks and great white sharks.)
According to Humane Society International, dried fins from endangered species can easily find their way into Canadian markets. Few imported fins are labeled, and even if they are, customs officials often do not know scientific names and the rules attached to the species.
“There is no routine monitoring of which species are coming in, let alone DNA testing,” says Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending illegal wildlife trade. “A shipment will come in labeled shark fins or even something vaguer like dried seafood,” he says.
Knights, Steinke, and others believe that a federal ban on shark fin would be the most effective means for ensuring Canada does not contribute to illegal and unsustainable trade. But so far, two bills proposing such a ban have been defeated, one in 2013 and one in 2015. A new bill to ban shark fin imports is currently being considered.
“My personal hope is that people get enraged enough to demand that this entire practice be stopped,” Steinke says. “There’s no need for it—it’s a luxury product—and it’s simply cruel.”